- Kathleen Keenan
A warning: If you choose to see Lost Nation Theater’s production of Bad Dates on the same weekend you check out Sex and the City 2, you may need some sort of detox to get you back in a Vermont frame of mind. A weekend weeding an organic farm as part of a “crop mob,” perhaps, or a long hike in the woods wearing sensible shoes.
That’s because Bad Dates, the 2003 creation of prolific New York theater, film and TV writer Theresa Rebeck, exemplifies the same devil-may-care, Manhattan-centric female frothiness as the chronicles of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends. It even shares SATC’s recession-unfriendly obsession with obscenely expensive footwear as an avenue of women’s self-expression.
What this one-woman show doesn’t share with the television series and movies, by necessity, is the focus on camaraderie. Thirtysomething single mom Haley Walker — ably personified by Lost Nation producing artistic director Kathleen Keenan — is out there on her own, weathering the work and dating worlds with a wry, Texas-accented sense of humor.
The play is essentially a series of monologues set in Haley’s bedroom over the space of a few weeks. In this intimate space strewn with clothes and shoe boxes, she dresses for her dates and relates the disastrous ones she’s already had, drawing the audience slyly, personably into her confidence.
As Haley explains the origins of her shoe love, she also tells us her life story. We learn that she fled a bad marriage in Austin, Texas, with her young daughter in tow; snagged a spacious rent-controlled apartment (the kind that NYC landlords only rent to fictional characters); and worked her way up from waitressing to managing a swanky Manhattan joint. Just her luck that the boss happens to be laundering money for the Romanian mob.
Between her job and her child, Haley hasn’t had time to get out and date. But now, with her daughter, Vera, approaching her teens, she’s ready. Haley relates how she arrived at this conclusion at a Buddhist fundraiser where she found herself chatting with a man who harbored a belief in human-insect communication — and finding him attractive. The revelation-slash-punchline: “When the bug guy starts lookin’ good, it’s time to get out of the house!”
That belabored comic anecdote is typical of Rebeck’s humor: It’s competent but conventional, like the average standup act on “The Tonight Show.” Bad Dates pushes no boundaries; the bad dates Haley describes (there are really only two and a half of them) are bad in nonoutrageous, thoroughly familiar ways.
On the plus side, Rebeck’s vision of modern romance is believable and sometimes insightful. (Haley can’t believe one of her dates broke up with his previous girlfriend because he couldn’t visualize “the end of the movie” with her — “because of a stupid metaphor,” as she points out.) But, if you’re looking for the kind of comedy that shocks you by saying what nice people don’t dare say about love and sex, you’re out of luck. In his New York Times review of Bad Dates’ first production, Bruce Weber called it “comfort food” — and that’s about right.
The play would feel a lot longer if Keenan didn’t make Haley such a likable confidant. Her shifting vocal rhythms flesh out the character’s moods, which can veer abruptly from romantic wistfulness to a cynical “Whatever,” and she knows how to make and use eye contact with the audience. While the twanging and flitting, Southern-belle aspects of the character can get campy, Keenan usually keeps her feet on solid ground. Which is good, since a couple of Rebeck’s plot twists take us far from both the dating theme and the realistic setting. (Did I mention the Romanian mob?)
Under Margo Whitcomb’s effective direction, Keenan keeps our eyes entertained by stalking and prancing around the small space, trying on and discarding potential date ensembles. Donna Stafford’s scenic design likewise engages us by showing bits of spaces beyond the claustrophobic bedroom: A walk-in closet in one corner is stacked with more shoe boxes, and a squiggly cutout in the back wall reveals stylized skyscrapers.
Designed by Rosie Grannis, the costumes feel spot on for what a woman of Haley’s demo would have in her closet, and the spiky, sky-high shoes — lent by various community members — are great fun.
The irony of those shoes, of course, is that they make women feel more powerful and sexy while also making them less mobile — more apt to need rescuing by a handsome prince in a limo or cab. Like many a “Sex and the City” episode, Bad Dates ends with the heroine realizing that, for all her spunk and snark, she’s still dreaming of a last-minute intervention by Mr. Big. Painfully clichéd as such resolutions may be, most of us can understand Haley’s desire to dump the ego jockeying and wish lists that have marred her bad dates and just get along with somebody for a change.