What Happened Was...
at the Liberty Deli, 935-8420. $29. Through Oct 6.

A mix of the familiar boy-meets-girl setup along with something absolutely unexpected makes What Happened Was... curiously satisfying. The two characters, as written by playwright Tom Noonan, are like zesty layered meats offered on a fork for us to examine, chew, and savor. Noonan subtly digs into his characters' psyches, finding the parts that are broken and incomplete, and his insights accrue and dovetail in a way that's a little disorienting, the way good art should be. That this kind of performance is presented in a humble West Seattle deli-cum-dinner theater makes the experience more fun and a tad bizarre. (The menu included the peculiar choice of corned beef and cabbage with fettuccine, which recalled a church basement dinner more than anything else, as did the audience: mostly sweet, elderly white-haired ladies from the neighborhood.)

What Happened Was... (also an independent film made in 1994), like many other plays, is about a man and woman in a Manhattan apartment. The characters Jackie and Michael, two office workers on a date, reveal their defense mechanisms--not so much to each other, but to the audience. Actors Kady Douglas and NYC transplant Thomas Hewitt Brooks both imbue their parts with vibrant energy, and while the mismatched pair eat dinner (at a table shared by two audience members who can observe the actors literally at arm's length), we see how lonely and screwed up they are.

Then, in an odd structural twist, the underconfident Jackie reads aloud a children's story she has authored, full of nutty Oedipal imagery (lots of womb and mother-eating- babies stuff). The long tale flies in the face of the man/woman/date genre, creating a beautiful sense of confusion and wonder that mingles well with the characters and their messy emotional problems. The play's ending settles back into a more conventional scenario, but What Happened Was..., with its mad rhetorical centerpiece, left me with a sense of liberation and a taste of Noonan's sharp insight.