NYT: Bad Dates

Lurching From One Bad Date to Another

By SYLVIANE GOLD

“Ever eat a goat?”

It’s someone’s idea of a pickup line, and you can find it scrawled, along with other such gems, on one of the lined notebook pages tacked up on the lobby wall ofLong Wharf’s Stage II. Theatergoers arriving for Theresa Rebeck’s “Bad Dates” are being encouraged to contribute their own horror stories to this distinctly low-tech interactive bulletin board.

The play is pretty low-tech, too. An Off Broadway hit in 2003, it is a 75-minute monologue in which a divorced mother recounts the particulars of her fairly pathetic social life as she prepares for and returns from a series of dates. But Ms. Rebeck’s easy control of her craft allows her to overlay this simple comic conceit with a richly detailed character study.

Like so many women, Hayley Walker seems to lurch through her life on impulse. The shoeboxes that occupy every spare corner of her artfully designed bedroom (thank Frank J. Alberino) and the wildly disparate outfits that emerge almost nonstop from her closet (thank Jessica Wegener) testify not only to an addiction to shopping but also to a very shaky sense of self. Is Hayley the staid matron of the below-the knee black sheath or the hot tootsie of the shiny bustiered minidress? Is she the elegant Chanel pump or the strappy flame-red stiletto? And what, by the way, is that shoebox crammed full of cash all about?

As related by the radiantly beautiful Haviland Morris, Hayley’s dating misadventures clearly stem from her own confusion about who she is. That’s not to say that she’s entirely to blame for her unhappy rendezvous — the guys she ends up describing as she confides her experiences to the audience seem not to have a clue about how to behave on a date. One regales her with tales of his troubled colon; another can’t even be bothered to properly describe his job, on the assumption that she’s too dumb to understand. But we never actually see her escorts. We do see Hayley, and she’s got problems that go way beyond her bad luck with men and her 600 pairs of shoes.

A transplanted Texan who manages a trendy restaurant in New York, Hayley looks to her teenage daughter for fashion advice and to her gay brother for relationship advice. Her bosses at the restaurant have not always been on the right side of the law, and, since she’s still working there, her own business acumen may be in doubt as well. As Hayley frets in her bedroom, methodically changing from one misguided get-up to another, Ms. Morris, under the direction of Eric Ting, lets us see past the overdressed shopaholic in the mirror to the emotional wreck within.

Although “Bad Dates” never slips away from its light-comedy moorings, the sad reality that keeps Hayley alone is always visible just below the surface. Ms. Morris can be sexy and charming even when contorting her face into a bizarre grimace (don’t ask why — it’s too silly); but she can also convey the spiky armor Hayley deploys whenever things get a little tricky for her. And the modulations Ms. Morris brings to the character keep Hayley from becoming tiresome even as, on occasion, her anecdotes ramble on for a little too long.

“Bad Dates” never does get around to the pluses and minuses of goat meat (although we do get Hayley’s musings on cow’s head). But in its close attention to what people say and do and eat as they circle round each other in that strange, stressful ritual known as dating, this Long Wharf production manages to provide that rarest of good dates, a swell night at the theater.

“Bad Dates,” by Theresa Rebeck, is at Long Wharf Theater’s Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through March 22. Information: (203) 787-4282 or longwharf.org.