Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 2009
As mid-winter entertainment, Bad Dates is very, very good. Elizabeth Aspenlieder is a talented comedienne. Theresa Rebeck is a literate and witty playwright. Behind the scenes Shakespeare & Company supports their efforts with a top-notch professional staff of designers and techies. But I knew all of that before I walked in to the theatre. What I didn’t know was the play itself, and that was what bothered me no end.
I am very glad that The Understudy was the first play by Theresa Rebeck that I saw and reviewed because it is a real play, not an extended comedy sketch like Bad Dates. Rebeck and her friend, actress Jane White, who originated the role of Haley Walker, conceived the idea for this show while discussing White’s recent re-entry into the dating scene. Their original idea, however, was not for a theatre piece, but for a reality TV show in which contestants would compete to see who had had the worst date. It evolved into this one-woman show, which is frothy fun, but not great theatre. But it has been wildly successful and helps Rebeck pay the bills while she does more serious work.
The premise is simple. Haley Walker is an attractive, healthy, 30- or maybe even 40-something single mother and successful restaurateur. She earns good money, enough to afford a nice Manhattan apartment and private school for her 13-year-old daughter, Vera…and 600 pairs of designer shoes. What she lacks is a man, and over the course of the two hours we spend with her she tells the audience exactly what it is like to re-enter the dating world in the new millennium.
This production is far better than the material. A frequent complaint about one-person plays is that they are just talking heads, but director Adrianne Krstansky keeps Aspenlieder on the move and the stage is constantly filled with energy and color. That, and Aspenlieder’s hilarious and winning performance, make Haley’s tales of dating woe as palatable as possible, considering the archaic fantasies to which she subscribes.
At one point Haley tells the audience that she isn’t a 1950’s kind of girl, but that is exactly what she is. She wants a man to come and “take her away,” to support her so that she doesn’t have to work, to relieve her of the necessity of defining herself and creating her own life, leaving her free to shop for clothes and shoes all day long. It’s a lovely dream, but it didn’t work in the 1950’s and it surely won’t work today. And what sort of an example is she setting for her daughter?
In preview interviews Aspenlieder and Krstansky emphasized Haley’s intelligence and financial success as evidence of her independence. In fact, Haley owes everything she has achieved to men in ways that prove just what dumb choices a smart woman can make. At the end of the play, when her blind dependence on men in the workplace creates a literally life-threatening situation for her and her daughter, she is rescued by a man. What century are we in??
Bad Dates is written by one of America’s most promising playwrights, male or female, staged by an up-and-coming female director, starring a fine comedienne, and produced by a company founded and led by an impressive and talented woman. Its great entertainment, but is this really what all those smart, successful women want to say? That happiness depends on $400 shoes and the approval of a person with a penis?
Not that I don’t like $400 shoes. I can’t afford them, they don’t make them in my size, and you can’t wear them in the country, but I like them. I liked listening to Rebeck riff on the joys of stylish footwear in the early part of the play, and I found myself cheerfully playing fashion police as Haley dressed for each date. That outfit she wore on her first date was a dowdy disaster (the sequined skirt and royal blue top was a much chicer combo) and I would have stormed the stage and wrestled Aspenlieder to the ground if Haley had chosen the black shoes over the pink ones to wear with the purple dress.
And the tales of Haley’s disastrous dates with dorky, rude men are fun too. My question is, don’t men have similar stories? Surely stupidity, selfishness, and lack of manners cross all gender lines. If I were producing the reality TV show of which Rebeck and White dreamed, I would be sure that both sexes got the ribbing they deserve. But Rebeck confesses through Haley that she is guilty of indulging in male bashing. This is a play written by a straight woman about a straight woman’s experiences. Who else is there to bash?
Obvious kudos go to costume designer Jennifer Tremblay, and to all the local shoe stores who provided the fabulous footwear and piles and piles of swanky shoe boxes. Shakespeare & Company is teaming up with Shooz in downtown Lenox to collect gently used career-appropriate shoes and accessories for Dress for Success of Western Massachusetts, a non-profit that provides disadvantaged women with an interview suit and career counseling to help them get, and keep, a job. You can drop your donations off at the Shakespeare & Company box office, or at Shooz (44 Housatonic Street), in return for a 20% off coupon from Shooz. (Let's see, 20% off of $400 is...)
Also, hearty applause to stage manager Molly Hennighausen. If every shoe, skirt, blouse, book (Haley is reading the collected poems of W. B. Yeats), box, and phone isn’t in EXACTLY the right place at the right time, Aspenlieder is sunk. That is what a good stage manager does – make the actor and director’s work look easy – and Hennighausen keeps things humming right along.
Susan Zeeman Rogers has designed a colorful set which welcomes the audience into the intimate world of Haley’s bedroom and manages to capture the shape and feel of an upscale early 20th century Manhattan apartment beautifully. It is warmly lit by Matthew Miller.
Shakespeare & Company is the first major regional theatre to take the Polar Bear Plunge and mount a production in the dead of winter. It bears watching this grand experiment, which will find itself prey to the vagaries of Berkshire winter weather as well as the economic tides. The Company is wisely offering all tickets at the 40% off Berkshire resident discount price and has pushed the evening curtain up to 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. because people just don’t like to be out as late at night in the winter as they do in the summer.
And despite my quibbles about the lack of feminist sensibility in this play, it was probably a wise choice for midwinter run. In these dark and chilly days we like our meals hearty and our entertainment light.
Shakespeare & Company production of Bad Dates will be performed through March 8 in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Kemble Street campus in Lenox, MA. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up.
The new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre is wheelchair accessible. Performances in the evenings begin at 7 p.m. and in the afternoons at 2:00 p.m. Seating is by general admission, and tickets are specially priced at $21.60 for Previews and $28.80 for all other performances. These special ticket prices reflect the Company’s current Berkshire County Resident Discount of 40%, which will also be provided for this production to ALL of our patrons as a gesture of community. Thursday night Bad Dates performances are Dress for Success Nights. Donate your items and receive (in addition to the Shooz coupon) 20% off tickets to the show—on top of the 40% Berkshire Resident Discount for all.
For a complete schedule, to inquire about student, senior, and Rush Tix, or to receive a brochure, please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For special group rates and activities, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009