New Haven Advocate: Bad Dates

Are you ready for Long Wharf's surprisingly deep and rich production of a frothy one-woman comedy?

Mystery Date

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

By Christopher Arnott

On its frothy surface, Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates is a whimsical one-woman show about a successful yet unfulfilled career woman who's looking for love in all the wrong places — a Buddhist retreat, her own restaurant, a police station while on the run from the Romanian mob...

Since this story is told — directly to the audience, as if we're a cherished confidante — from the comfort of her shoebox-strewn bedroom rather than acted, it's not as riotously screwball as it sounds, which allows us to appreciate (if we feel like it between the laughs) some intriguing theatrical paradoxes and style choices. Like, if this woman is so concerned with her looks (she changes her clothes a half dozen times in the first 15 minutes), why has she invited us into her bedroom to watch her change? It's one of those narrative devices that always hits me wrong. So does the way she tells the story — not the way a gossipy friend might, leading with the key points and filling in details afterwards, but as a novelist might, building the suspense and leaving major bits out until the climax.

But I'm impressed by the way Rebeck realizes this conceit in a way other playwrights often don't. She interjects phone conversations (and shouts to the woman's unseen daughter in the next room) which use the more realistic info-relating method ("He's gay!!"), then dips right back into the spoken short-story mode.

You can tell that star Haviland Morris (of Sixteen Candles, aged into gorgeous neurotic adulthood) and director Eric Ting (whose last Long Wharf production about struggling sexualized women and deceitful men was the much, much different The Bluest Eye) have also given these presentational issues a lot of thought. Morris keeps an even banter going throughout the breezy, intermissionless 90-minute show. You notice lines that lesser performers would probably shriek or clutter up with broad gestures, and admire Morris' restraint. Ting, meanwhile, frames each scene carefully, directing Morris to go into a closet or behind a bed for some of the more anxious confessions. He and the show's designers also underscore the changing moods with subtle lighting changes and a wonderfully unsubtle rainstorm.

Thanks to Rebeck's clever structure, which breaks the story cleanly into separate scenes, and to Frank J. Alberino's supremely detailed, lived-in set (reportedly based on his own apartment), Bad Dates feels more like a play than a drawn-out story. So many Stage II solo shows — Tyne Daly in Mystery Play and Lynn Redgrave in The Mandrake Root, to name two — make do with sparse or non-existent sets, expecting star power or compelling text to carry the show. But there's nothing wrong with dressing up a play that, among other things, is all about dressing up.

Some will simply laugh and wince along with the adorable romantic plot contrivances and wackily irritating characters we hear about. There are those who will appreciate the star's amiable outreach to the audience (Morris waits a few times for vocal approval from the crowd without letting the show turn into Late Nite Catechism III). Still others will admire the sturdy writing and stunning versatility of Rebeck (who's also written a slew of impressive dramas, ensemble comedies, psychodramas and TV cop shows). And then there are those, like me, who may not have been waiting hungrily for a light piece like this to fill the Long Wharf Stage, yet can't hide our wonderment at how confidently and creatively the theater has staged it. Dressing up is part of the appeal, but it's also about gaining respect for what at first seems like dithery nonsense but grows in depth and meaning before your eyes.