Bad Dates – Written by Theresa Rebeck; Directed by Jessica Stone; Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge; Costume Design by Sarah Laux; Lighting Design by David J. Weiner; Sound Design by Drew Levy. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston through March 3rd.
Bad Dates, Theresa Rebeck’s one-woman play now making its return to the Huntington after a smash run in 2004, is billed as a comedy, but it’s actuality it’s much more than that. At the outset it appears to be just another amusing discourse on dating – which is always a rich vein to mine for laughs – but as the plot unfolds it becomes sneakily poignant. And in the hands of the gifted comic actress Haneefah Wood and director Jessica Stone, the piece is transformed into a masterful piece of storytelling.
Wood, whom many will remember from her hysterical IRNE Award-winning performance in 2015’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (also directed by Stone at the Huntington), plays Haley Walker, a single mom of a 13-year old girl, who is now diving back into the dating pool. After a lengthy bit about shoes (which I’m guessing had many of the men in the audience checking their watches), we learn that Haley is a survivor, having come to New York with her daughter in tow after escaping from her marriage to a “moron”. She takes a job as a waitress, but ends up running the restaurant after her Romanian mobster boss Veljko is busted by the feds for money laundering. She soon discovers that she is some “sort of weird restaurant-idiot-savant” and the place becomes one of New York’s hottest eateries.
With life now firing on all cylinders, she begins a serious flirtation with a “skinny” and handsome charmer. Just as she is about to begin dating him, her friend tells her that her life directly parallels the life of Joan Crawford in the movie “Mildred Pierce,” which it pretty much does – from being a single mother leaving a bad marriage to becoming a successful restauranteur. She watches the movie, sees that Crawford’s life is destroyed when she starts dating a skinny, handsome charmer, and taking it as an omen, steers clear of romantic entanglements for a full five years. But now it’s time for Momma to get back into the game.
Haley meets her dates the old-fashioned way, socializing, flirting and even being set up by her Mom with an outrageously incompatible match. She tells us her dating misadventures from her spacious Manhattan bedroom (beautifully designed by Alexander Dodge) while in various states of dressing and undressing before and after her dates, including trying on and providing a running commentary on the aforementioned shoes from her 600 pair collection. She also solicits wardrobe advice from her unseen daughter Vera and relationship guidance from her gay brother (via phone). Wood details a handful of her dating experiences, and that’s where the real depth of Rebeck’s writing begins to emerge.
Her story from her first date initially sounds a bit from a standup comedian, as she riffs on him discussing his cholesterol and colon problems – which, while humorous, is not particularly compelling. But her attitude quickly shifts gears when she realizes that this is his first date, too, following a poorly thought out breakup. He’s still very conflicted about his feelings, and she begins to humanize him. But as he explains his absurd reasoning for the breakup (“he couldn’t see where the movie was going with this woman”) she can no longer contain herself. “Is it possible you broke up with the woman you loved because of some insane metaphor?” she cuttingly asks, and not surprisingly, the date goes irretrievably south. But the absurdity of dating being what it is, they still end up tongue-kissing at the conclusion of the date.
Haley’s dating troubles continue as her Mom sets her up with a handsome lawyer – who also happens to be gay. And we’re excited for her when she finally meets Mr. Right, who also happens to be the skinny handsome charmer from a half-decade before. But as Wood spins her stories, Bad Dates slowly becomes less about dating and more about how unexpected and (often preferable) outcomes can come about when we let the universe do its job.
Playwright Rebeck weaves a tapestry of reasonably plausible coincidences and a wild plot twist into the narrative to get the seemingly random dots to connect, taking the play in an unexpected direction. And the results, while still very funny, are satisfying on a much deeper level. Folks who are spiritually attuned will tell you that there are really no coincidences (Albert Einstein actually said, “Coincidence is God’s way of being anonymous”), so the “coincidences” flow naturally within the storyline instead of feeling like convenient plot devices. And it works.
The Huntington has produced a string of great comedies in the last twelve months, including Tartuffe and the terrific Ripcord (also directed by Stone), and Bad Dates keeps that skein going. If you’re looking for some laughs and something more, go see it. For more info, go to: www.huntingtontheatre.org/