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Spatter Pattern
or
How I Got Away With It

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The hallmark of the United States justice system has long been that one is "innocent until proven guilty," though that's not always applied in the court of public opinion. That's also where facts and opinions are often indistinguishable, and the distinction between truth and reality is so blurry that there may as well not be a line between the two. This is the playground of Spatter Pattern, which is now receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons.

Neal Bell's play, which is running through October 24, thrives on the uncertainty generated by tragic events, public and private. The public event here is the murder of a student named Andrea Evans, with her professor Marcus Tate (Darren Pettie) standing accused - but not charged - of the crime. The private event is the death of the longtime lover of screenwriter Edward Dunn (Peter Frechette), which has affected Dunn's life in profound personal and professional ways. Both men are at the end of their ropes.

Dunn discovers a potential way to revive his career when he moves into an apartment adjacent to Tate's. He comes to believe that he can make a movie of the man's story that will satisfy both his personal needs for expression and commercial box office requirements. Tate, however, continues to protest his innocence, and as the two men become better acquainted, it becomes evident that neither's truths are not so clear-cut, and each needs the other to replace the love and trust stripped away by fate and the outside world.

This human story is the most immediately compelling of the play's plot elements, and it eventually overshadows what at first seems to be the show's central question: Is Tate actually guilty of the crime? Bell's attempts at juggling these plot threads results in an a dramatic imbalance that prevents a completely satisfying resolution of either: The final scene, in which both issues collide head on, is somewhat lacking in the emotional punch it might have had the stories melded together more easily earlier on.

Bell also isn't aided by the use of a chime that occasionally interrupts the action and rewinds the action to allow things to happen differently the second or third time around. This suggests that the action of the play is Dunn's screenplay, and that the corrections are made for the benefit of the audience in real time. But unlike David Ives's Sure Thing or the musical City of Angels, here the device feels more intrusively gimmicky than completely necessary.

Director Michael Greif ably smoothes over such rough edges, however, and exerts enough force to make the play feel like exactly the intense, high-stakes whodunit it wants to be. Mark Wendland's set, which incorporates a number of sliding and revolving wall panels, and Kevin Adams's sharp, film noir-style lighting prove equally important at maintaining the show's tone throughout the 90-minute evening. That tone, alternately taut, suspenseful, and bitterly funny is what Bell gets unquestionably right, and a big part of what makes Spatter Pattern work in spite of the writing's occasional looseness.

The cast also helps tremendously, with Frechette and Pettie providing strong anchors for the story, and receiving dynamic support from John Lavelle and Deirdre O'Connell in a wide variety of minor roles. While O'Connell stands out, playing everything from Dunn's bitchy agent to a world-weary prostitute and mining the show's biggest laughs with her solid-gold deadpan delivery, everyone adeptly handles the dramatic and comedic moments he or she has been assigned.

Finding and maintaining the precise equilibrium between comedy and the subject matter's deadly seriousness can't have been easy, but Bell succeeded admirably at it, despite the script's other problems with balance. The disarmingly humorous nature of the show's early scenes effectively helps him mask the true nature of the show that ultimately emerges, so that when most everything is finally explained, most of the revelations are as startling for the audience as for the characters.

It's not until these last moments that Bell's real point - about the human cost the truths we tell (or conceal) can have on others - is fully driven home. If these messages are partially obscured elsewhere in the play, the uniquely resonant theatrical voices that Bell and Greif bring to this complex and almost always entertaining play never fail to ring out loud and clear.

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Playwrights Horizons
Spatter Pattern (or, How I Got Away With It)
Through October 24
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200