Leave it to Neal Bell. So many recent plays have made forays into the noir genre—conscious or unconscious, spoofing or surrealist—that I had assumed there was nothing new to be gotten from it. But Bell walks in, boldly and knowingly, where legions have trod before, and instantly finds new paths to explore, new matches of tone and subject, new sources of moral perturbation. His title, from forensic medicine, describes both the directions in which blood has spurted from a fatal wound and the aesthetic tactic his script employs. His topic, achingly visible under the sprayed droplets of his story, is responsibility; you might say that Spatter Pattern scrutinizes what Wallace Stevens implied, in “The Man With the Blue Guitar,” was the central question of the modern age: “Is the spot on the floor, there, wine or blood,/And whichever it may be, is it mine?”
Or you might simply say it’s about how paths cross: The first thing we see, in Michael Greif’s taut, stark production, is four people walking past each other in two opposite directions, couples that aren’t couples. Gradually stories emerge. A man named Dunn moves in next door to a man named Tate. Each lives alone; neither wants to be living there; each has a past with a recently dead person in it casting a huge shadow over his present. Dunn (Peter Frechette) is “done” in every sense: a washed-up gay screenwriter whose longtime lover, recently deceased (lung cancer, not AIDS), has left him with guilts, doubts, and writing blocks instead of affectionate memories; as the play opens, his longtime agent is giving him the heave-ho. Tate (Darren Pettie)—whose name suggests among other things the German word for “deed” (Tat)—is equally on his uppers: A Gulf War vet and college English professor suspected of murdering one of his students, he has been sacked by the school, left by his wife, and stalked by a detective convinced of his guilt. With his photo smeared all over the tabloids in a case they label “Throat-Slitting 101,” he’s even recognized when he patronizes a hooker (who, unimpressed, tells him she also did Bernhard Goetz).
Tate needs someone to unburden himself to, other than the silent callers who ring up at 3 a.m. to harass him (his response is to address them as if they were the dead student). Dunn needs both a companion and a subject other than his own grief to write about. (For a double bonus, he’s erotically drawn to Tate, despite the latter’s non-response, and his ex-agent has been trying to float a TV movie about the case.) The terse, swiftly intercut scenes in which we’ve seen the first part of each man’s story begin to give way to scenes with creepily uncertain points of view. The murdered girl begins to haunt Dunn’s vision as well as Tate’s; Tate’s self-dramatizing behavior increasingly suggests that he’s already become the character envisioned in Dunn’s burgeoning screenplay. The nerve-fraying mixture of bonding and mistrust between them starts to build, subtly, to a quiet and unexpected resolution.
To make matters even trickier, in scenes involving Dunn, Bell uses a get-me-rewrite device: People speak their unspoken thoughts, which then, at the ping of a little bell, are removed as they jump back a few lines. The maneuver is not merely a gimmick: Letting us hear what the characters think but don’t say is utterly apposite to a play that scrutinizes the difference between things thought and things actually done, between what’s said and what’s believed. It’s a good play to have around, just now, in a country that currently has serious trouble sorting out the difference between, for instance, what politicians assert and what their policies actually achieve. The extent to which we mean what we say, believe what we feel, are responsible for what we desire and what we do—these have been Bell’s philosophic stock-in-trade since he first attracted notice, some decades back, with Two Small Bodies, another play about the eerie bond between criminal and chronicler. In Spatter Pattern he achieves that vibrant welding of concept and drama in which the theme permeates the action, rather than being illustrated by it. There are no handy moral tags in the dialogue to explain the play, and the more you unpack its events, the more troubling they become.
Greif calibrates his production exquisitely. I’m not often a fan of Mark Wendland’s sets, with their industrial starkness and their showy reliance on machinery; his design here serves the action immaculately, its shifting walls drenched in shadows by Kevin Adams’s sharp, evocative lighting. The sound design, by Jill B.C. DuBoff with music by Michael Friedman, both fixes and challenges moods, teasing you with hints of film noir scoring and never nudging its way into your attention ahead of the action. In a string of small roles, John Lavelle stirs up audience jitters with particular effectiveness as a haywire student; Deirdre O’Connell, running the gamut from frantic coed through seen-it-all hooker to sour-mouthed agent, is perfection in every role. Peter Frechette, expectably, embodies the grief-stricken writer with anguished, vulnerable grace. And Darren Pettie skillfully conveys not only the possible psychotic streak in Tate but—far more difficult—the weight of the moral burden he carries. As a bonus, Pettie’s good looks—-at least in the halations of Adams’s golden lights—live up to the handsomeness that’s supposed to leave Dunn dumbstruck when he and Tate first meet.