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Peter Frechette and Darren Pettie in Spatter Pattern
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In order to enjoy Neal Bell's Spatter Pattern (Or, How I Got Away With It), it's necessary to suspend disbelief over a major plot development. But Bell's sizzler of a play -- expertly presented by a theater team running smoothly on all cylinders -- will make you want to bend over backwards to forgive the credulity-stretching central coincidence.

What you have to take on faith is that Dunn (Peter Frechette) and Tate (Darren Pettie) would end up living in adjoining apartments in a tenement located in one of Manhattan's dingier neighborhoods. Dunn, a writer who's been having trouble turning out saleable scripts since his lover died, has moved into the cheerless edifice with its gray stucco walls because it's acceptable enough to him in his depressed state; Tate has taken his barren rooms because his marriage and his teaching career have foundered as a result of his being the prime suspect in a case involving a murdered student named Andrea Evans.

The big co-inky-dink here is that Dunn has been dropped by his agent, Selma, who's following the Tate headlines and would like to get a screenplay about him that she can peddle -- and there's ex-client Dunn, suddenly living right next door to the guy. So, while mired in grief for his late lover David, Dunn sets about befriending Tate and attempts to discover whether he was actually the person who knifed Andrea in a back alley. Though Tate is hip to Dunn's motives, he can't stop himself from confiding a good deal of information, eventually including a disturbing secret.

In telling his story, Bell comes up with all sorts of engrossing notions and incidents. Not the least of them is Dunn's inclination as a writer to imagine various versions of what he's experiencing. His flights of fancy, as often as not paranoid, are interrupted by a bell that jolts him back into the real world. The playwright also introduces a handful of additional characters -- all played by Deirdre O'Connor and John Lavelle -- including Tate's estranged wife, a hooker whome he visits, a detective who's convinced that Tate's the killer, and a student friend of Andrea's who's also certain of Tate's guilt. And then there's troubled, troublesome Andrea herself, who haunts Tate and even shows up to occupy Dunn's vivid imaginings.

Spatter Pattern -- the title a reference to blood at a crime scene -- is a did-he-do-it mystery, the outcome of which won't be blithely spattered here. It's also about life's existential mysteries. Dunn and Tate, often isolated in their meagerly furnished spaces, are men ambushed by circumstances of their own making. Dunn, who spends some of the action deciding what to do with David's "cremains," has boxed himself into memories; Tate has based an aspect of his past on a fabrication, and the lie is biting him on the ankle. The "got away" in Bell's subtitle is a double entendre: For all its chic noir aspects, Spatter Pattern is about a pair of emotional fugitives reckoning how to get away from themselves. Dunn and Tate eventually help each other to solutions, and their escapes at Bell's denouement make for indelible stage images.

Stage images, of course, are a collaborative effort. To help achieve them, Bell has director Michael Greif, who's working with great sympathy for and imagination about the text. In the play's first moments, he dispatches actors and stagehands across the stage as if they're so many faceless city dwellers heading to their jobs. Subsequently, the stagehands labor efficiently and often to push set designer Mark Wendland's gray walls into various concatenations. Now they're grim studios in which Dunn and Tate ruminate; now they're an interrogation room; now they're a prostitute's quarters; now, pushed back, they allow for an approximation of the Hudson River, where Dunn and Tate go to search for a discarded knife that Tate insists was not the murder weapon.

Deirdre O'Connell and Darren Pettie
in Spatter Pattern
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Sound designer Jill B. C. Duboff does a fine job of infusing the production with city noises, and she also has Michael Friedman's original music to play around with. Friedman, aware that he's enhancing a nervy script, has wrought nervy compositions; he even channels Bernard Herrmann-like strains to emphasis the Hitchcockian atmosphere. Lighting designer Kevin Adams has steeped the stage in deep shadows and sickly interior illumination. His last effect, accompanying Dunn's final liberating activity on a deserted beach, is indelible theater craft.

In carrying out that action, Peter Frechette as Dunn raises his impressive performance a quantum notch. Frechette apparently has a lock on the intelligent, metropolitan gay man; he plays him regularly and well, and Dunn is a worthy addition to his gallery. Darren Pettie walks the line required as a character who is or isn't guilty of a particular crime but nevertheless suffers guilt pangs over his life. John Lavelle is so good in his several roles that, every time he shows up, an observer thinks: "It must be the same actor, but it can't be." Deirdre O'Connor -- who has never committed a false step on stage -- makes Tate's wife an understandable harridan, agent Selma one of Manhattan's acerbic funny ladies, and Andrea a bundle of worries. As the prostitute, she takes the words "Oh, honey" and turns them into an autobiography. But it's Frechette, in luminous blue light in the drama's last moments, who seals Neal Bell's plaintive message about our continual struggle to "get away with it" and, even more urgently, to get away from it.

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