Bad Dates has the familiar feel of a long night spent with a girlfriend after she's suffered a breakup, one of those nights when you can offer nothing but a shared bottle of wine, anything sweet you have lurking in the fridge and a loving ear. Playwright Theresa Rebeck provides a script that's probably a good bit sharper and funnier than anything you and your girlfriend could come up with, however, and actress Diana Dresser makes a fine best friend, all vulnerability and confiding charm, with just a touch of pure craziness.
Of course, since this is set in New York, your friend has hundreds of pairs of shoes. I sometimes wonder about this ubiquitous woman-and-shoes trope, and it makes a comparison between Bad Dates and Sex and the City inevitable. But Bad Dates is far more appealing than Sex. (While I enjoyed the first season of that show, I eventually came to loathe it for Sarah Jessica Parker's preening Carrie Bradshaw. And when I tuned back in for the episodes featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov, I was astonished at how love seemed to thicken the air whenever he and Parker were together. Unfortunately, it was their parallel effusions of self-love.)
Neither Bad Dates' shoe angle nor its cute, shoe-box-shaped set (courtesy Maurice LaMee, who also directs) particularly intrigued me. But the script and acting did.
Haley, a single mom, runs a trendy restaurant (duly baptized as such by the New York Times) that was once a money-laundering front for the Romanian mob. As the play opens, her primary concern is to get back into the dating scene after five dry years devoted to earning a living and caring for her daughter. Like most women in this position, she has -- as the title suggests -- bad dates. We, her collective best friend, see her preparing for them, and we're in on the aftermath. She's completely open. She asks our opinion on her clothes; in an outrageously funny and acrobatic sequence, she wriggles into her pantyhose in front of us; and at one point, she literally jumps for joy on the bed. When she tells us she's finally had a good date, we clap and cheer. But when this relationship, too, goes sour, she moves away from our sight, crouching behind her bed to grieve, and we feel for her. There are a few moments when I find the play losing me -- in the same way that your best friend does when she's still telling you her troubles at two in the morning, and though you're struggling gamely to stay with her, your eyelids keep dropping. But the story revs up again with the second act.
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Several critics -- and also a real-life friend who saw the show with me -- argue that the Romanian-mob plot complication that brings on the play's climax is contrived, but I think it's well-prepared-for and cleverly executed. Too many writers these days show a protagonist arriving at some significant insight through self-examination alone; it seems far more convincing that Haley does it as the result of a terrifying external jolt.
Perhaps it's easy for me to suspend disbelief because when I was in my twenties, I worked in a West Village bar where the owner refused to pay off the mob -- in this case, the Mafia. A tough-looking young man came in one afternoon and asked for a beer. As I was drawing it, another young man entered, and then another, until there were eight. I barely had time to think that I didn't like the look of this when I saw a chair hit the ceiling light, and the waitress, older and more experienced than I, scuttling toward the bathroom. I followed her and found the tiny cubicle jammed with customers, including a young man who was sitting on the john, groaning and nursing his head. Eventually, the banging and crashing died down, and we crept out to encounter an overwhelming reek of alcohol. The floor was awash in booze. Glass crackled under our feet. A muscular construction worker from New Jersey who was one of the regulars walked in agonized circles holding his jaw, his sky-blue T-shirt stained from neck to waist with blood. Another regular -- a drunken old man with a habit of slipping tens and twenties into my bra -- sat at the end of the bar. "I'm empty," he said. "What d'you have to do to get a beer around here?"
Not a date you'd want to repeat. Haley's bad dates, on the other hand, make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening out.
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