Shakespeare & Company's 'Bad Dates' at Merrimack Rep
Directed by Adrianne Krstansky
Scene Designer, Susan Zeeman Rogers; Costume Designer, Deborah Newhall; Lighting Designer, Matthew Miller; Sound Designer, David Wilson; Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Assistant Stage Manager, Peter Crewe
Featuring: Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Haley Walker)
Performances through April 12 @ Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Box Office 978-654-4MRT (4678) or www.merrimackrep.org
Combine the speaking antics of Carol Burnett with the blonde hair and bearing of Shelley Long, and you're halfway to visualizing an image of Elizabeth Aspenlieder, a gifted physical comedienne who makes Bad Dates a good day at the theatre. Add Theresa Rebeck's conversational script, Adrianne Krstansky's crisp direction, and a "to-die-for" apartment designed by Susan Zeeman Rogers, and the Merrimack Repertory Theatre offers a completely entertaining stimulus package for the spouse deficient and the romantically disadvantaged among us.
That's not to say that happily coupled patrons should stay away; after all, most of us have been through the dating wars at one time or another. If you think you've had it bad, compare your worst to Haley Walker's bug guy, or the guy who discusses his cholesterol while gorging on butter and cream at a French restaurant, or the mother-arranged blind date with the gay law professor. Even her good dates foreshadow something ominous, but hope springs eternal for Haley and she persists. In the hands (and feet) of Aspenlieder, Haley is a charmer and the audience is pulling for her to find Mr. Right.
The scene is Haley's bedroom in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City where the divorcée lives with her 13-year old daughter Vera (unseen in the play). From the start, there is no fourth wall and Haley addresses the audience as if we're old friends sitting in her room, totally conversational and casual, repeatedly dressing and undressing as she spins her tales of joy and woe. A couple of times she talks to others on the telephone, but this is a one-hander handled deftly with Krstansky making sure there's lots of moving around the stage to hold our attention. The prime diversion is dozens of boxes of shoes stacked high in the corners, shoes lined up downstage, and articles of clothing strewn about the room, even dangling from the ceiling fan. To call Haley a clothes horse (well-provided for by designer Deborah Newhall) would be fitting, but mostly she has a shoe fetish, claiming to own 600 pairs.
The shoes could almost be considered supporting characters - and what characters! There's the devilish pointy-toed, spike-heeled red pair to match Haley's form-fitting strapless sheath with ruche; the torturous royal blue spike heels with long ribbons to wrap around the ankle and lower calf; the $300 Chanel pumps she got for $30, and on and on. Much of Haley's identity is symbiotically connected to her footwear and she punctuates her narrative with shoe gestures, as in stabbing the air in dagger-like fashion, á la Tony Perkins in Psycho.
But who is this woman, besides being a single mom, horny shoe fetishist suffering through a string of unfulfilling social engagements? She tells us that she runs a restaurant that is a front for the Romanian mob, and that she has found her true calling in that managerial role. Bit by bit, her story unfolds and she gets caught up in some bad decisions that force her to flee the mob or come clean to the police. It seems that Rebeck had to choose between trying to inject some grit and drama or keeping the play on a strictly comedic level and went with the former. The problem is that the exposition around this arc is a drag on the pace and seriously reduces the laughs per minute ratio. It all comes together in the end, but I'm not sure that gravitas is warranted in an otherwise very funny and well-written play.
Aspenlieder's performance is the most compelling of several reasons to see Bad Dates. She invites the audience into Haley's boudoir and quirky life and we are ensnared, but in a good way. It's a little maddening when the character keeps changing clothes and trying to squeeze into shoes which obviously don't fit, but her constant banter and "aw, shucks" demeanor are enchanting. Rogers places the vivacious Haley in a vivid setting, surrounding her with bold yellow walls trimmed with white chair rail and crown molding; a fashionably-decorated bed with matching comforter, pillow shams, and bed skirt; a marble-topped bureau and corresponding nightstand; and a white dressing table with bench. Matthew Miller's lighting design allows us to notice all the nooks, crannies, and built-ins in the room and alerts us to the passing of time whenever our heroine returns from a date.
Haley returns from several dates...alone. Yet, each time she seems to learn something about herself and the whole process of trying to find someone to share her complicated life. She has the job, the kid, friends, and the great apartment, but still she keeps on looking for that missing piece despite all of the bad dates. Sounds nuts, but I think Rebeck is onto something because the audience laughs, nods, and ultimately gets it. Maybe Bad Dates would be a good destination for your next date.