Bad Dates by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Adrianne Krstansky.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"This is very high-end flirting."
Something there is that doesn’t love Elizabeth Aspenlieder-but I don't know what that could be. Men want to know her. Women want to be her. She is pretty, talented, charming, easy to chat with, intelligent, attentive and one of the funniest women on the American stage. Her comic turns in the past two years alone are approaching legendary status: Mistress Ford in Shakespeare’s "Merry Wives of Windsor"; Natasha in "Rough Crossing"; the extraordinarily physically exuberant Suzanne in "The Ladies Man." Now Shakespeare & Company has given her a long, masterful solo slot in Theresa Rebeck’s heavily plotted two-act comedy "Bad Dates."
Could any actress be given more of a challenge than this? Her character is a single mother who abandoned a marriage to come to New York and be a waitress. There she ends up living the life of Mildred Pierce, the 1945 Joan Crawford character, a waitress who gives up everything for her ungrateful daughter Vida, including good men. Haley Walker, Aspenlieder’s character, has a daughter named Vera. She has advanced from waitress to manager of a fine NYC restaurant and is managing to hold onto mob secrets and a secret of her own: a desire to date again and find a good man and have a satisfying relationship. She is also the recipient of modestly poor advice from her gay brother and a cocktail waitress/bartender whom she has befriended. Even her mother gets into the act by setting her up with an inappropriate man to date. Something there is, indeed, that doesn’t love Haley Walker and Aspenlieder has the job of portraying her for more than two hours at each performance. I repeat - can there be more of a challenge than this?
Thankfully, the playwright understands how well a sense of humor helps both character and audience in a situation as difficult as this one. Aspenlieder also has a sense of humor which she displays in a non-stop monologue through scene after scene after scene. Her body, face, voice and a endless stream of props - mostly items of clothing and countless shoes - bounce off the unseen walls of her lovely, rent-controlled apartment set. She flounces from floor to chair, to bed, to closet, to hallway, to dressing table, to mirror without stopping for even a breath. She tears through remembered dialogues and situations like a sharpened scissor-blade. She extolls the virtues of one outfit over another and changes and changes and changes them until we’ve seen more sides of Haley Walker than we ever thought we might.
Aspenlieder’s Haley is an absolute success. She works damned hard to make it one, and the effort shows at times because this is not just a play about a woman who makes bad choices in the men she sees, it is a play about the bad choices she makes in her work, her tendency to flee the hard choices and bad situations. There are those lovely, quiet moments when Haley reflects on her life and her selected goals and directions. Aspenlieder’s natural comic bent makes these even more special because of the calm that comes over her. In the second act, confronted by the possibility of criminal charges or worse, she falls into this "flee" mode and the delicacy she brings to the horrors she perceives is almost overwhelming to witness. But luckily there is one more quick costume change, one more quixotic line and funny exit, one more twist and turn of the plot to go through.
Director Adrianne Krstansky seems to know when to push the tempo and when to hold it back. She uses the set on the floor-stage of the Elayne P. Bernstein theater almost as though it was a theater-in-the-round setting. We seem to see Haley from all angles, all sides. In the first scene, as she prepares for her first date in a millennium, Krstansky keeps us with Haley on the floor for as long as possible. It is only when the right shoes are found - or are they the right ones - that she brings the actress up from ground level and sets her flying. From that point onward the director keeps the action going, rivaling the spoken word for intensity and motion.
The set, designed by Susan Zeeman Rogers, is a perfect New York mess with more than a room can contain jammed into the single mother’s private space. Jennifer Tremblay’s costumes are a miracle of humor and character-study, too loose, too tight, to class-conscious. Aspenlieder’s Haley is defined as much by her unworn costumes as by the ones she tries on and discards or finally chooses to wear. The shoes, naturally, play their own special role and whether one credits Tremblay, Aspenlieder or props designer Ian P. Guzzone with these is hard to know. Matthew Miller’s mood lighting is lovely and appropriate.
It is impossible, near as I can tell, not to love Elizabeth Aspenlieder and a show like this one is a trial of that love. We hope and we pray that Haley is only a character and does not reflect anything about the actress playing her, but she seems, in this production, to be so deeply inside Haley that we are forced to wonder, make a decision and stick with it. I have chosen the only solution that works for me: Aspenlieder is a brilliant, comic actress with an ability to expose a character in her own unique manner. I am delighted that Haley is fictional and Elizabeth is real and I cherish the temporary marriage of the two. As with Suzanne, Mistress Ford and Natasha, I cannot wait for these two people to part company so I can find Elizabeth again and dream about the next comic triumph in her future...hopefully without the Roumanian Mafia (see the play; I’ll reveal no more).
Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Haley; photo: Kevin Sprague
photo: Kevin Sprague
photo: Kevin Sprague
Bad Dates plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespeare & Company campus, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through March 9. Tickets are $28.80, a special reduced price, and can be booked by calling the box office at 413-637-3353. Showtimes are 2:00pm or 7:00pm. Check the schedule at www.shakespeare.org