Theresa Rebeck’s “Bad Dates”
Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates
A bad date would probably have been less painful, and certainly more dramatic, than sitting through the current Stageworks production of Rebeck’s one-woman show, Bad Dates, which opened this past Thursday and runs through December 6th at the Shimberg Playhouse at the Straz Center (formerly Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center). In spite of Marsha Norman’s most recent insistence that there’s no such thing as a “girl play,” this play suggests otherwise, and it’s not pretty.
This was actually my first encounter with one of Rebeck’s plays, and I went into it with high hopes. Her personal website showcases her extensive education (an MFA in playwriting and a PhD in Victorian melodrama, both from Brandeis University), teaching experience, and writing credits for the stage, screen, and television, not to mention a recent novel. She also has a new play The Understudy currently running in NYC at the Laura Pels Theatre in a Roundabout Theatre Company production. In short, her reputation precedes her, and reviews I read of Bad Dates were largely positive, from this one of its 2003 premiere, to this one of the March ’09 NYC revival. I figured this show would be a sure thing.
The entire play unfolds in the rent-controlled apartment bedroom of Hayley Walker, a middle-aged Texan divorcee, who has relocated to New York City with her 13 year old daughter, Vera, and taken a job as a waitress. When the Feds bust Haley’s Romanian mobster boss for money laundering, she steps in and flourishes as the restaurant’s new manager. With her financial success comes a sprawling designer shoe collection–600 pairs in total–and the confidence and desire to reenter the dating world. Scene by scene, Hayley dresses and undresses while taking us through her personal and professional mishaps.
Like many other theatre bloggers, I have given a lot of thought lately to how I approach critiquing and writing about plays. As I sat through Bad Dates, I kept asking myself why I wasn’t enjoying it: was it the acting, the direction, the set, the script, or even the audience the night I attended, or some combination of these? And then my mind returned to a funny, but apt comment by someone under the alias “Jack Worthing” on the Parabasis blog: “None of this matters if you’re trying to shine a turd. You can do a bad production of a good play, but not a good production of a bad play.” The script of Bad Dates feels too safe, familiar, flat, and it operates on a single level, with the exception of intermittent allusions to Joan Crawford’s parallel role in the 1945 film Mildred Pierce.
While I don’t prefer purely naturalistic plays, I am not opposed to them; however, I think naturalism in the form of a single-set, single-actor 90-minute play, such as this one, can prove particularly challenging for all involved–writer, director, set designer, actor, and audience alike. Jessica Rothert does as much as anyone could do with the part of Haley, given the play’s largely cliched characterization and plot and corny humor. Rothert’s off-stage nose blowing at one point evoked a heartier laugh than her actual monologues: to me, that tells you all you need to know.
Just before the show began it was announced that women in the Tampa community had donated some $25,000 in designer shoes, making this set the most expensive one ever at the Shimberg Playhouse. Now, I love beautiful shoes as much as the next girl, but given the gloomy state of the economy and job market, a play with a central character who has a high end shoe fetish felt, well, wrong. Maybe it’s just a personal problem. Maybe I’m just bitter. Or maybe it’s a regional thing–I kept imagining how certain lines about Jimmy Choos and Chanels might have gone over better in a sexier city–I don’t think those labels registered with half the audience.
Funnily enough, I ended up seated next to another person who was reviewing the play for a local paper, though I wasn’t certain of this while the show was in progress. We both sat, pen and pad in our laps, ready to scribble notes in the dark, but neither of us wrote so much as a letter–that was a first for me.
**Here are additional newspaper reviews:
Tampa Tribune Correspondent, Kathy Greenberg’s 11/23 review of Bad Dates: “Dolled-up ‘Dates” Gets Off on Wrong Foot”
St. Pete Times Correspondent, Marty Clear’s 11/24 review of Bad Dates: ” ‘Bad Dates’ at Straz Center is boring”