Friday, April 10, 2009

Stepping into the many shoes of Bad Dates

Just a week or two into its run, the Merrimack Rep's production of Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates had its own date with bad luck: its star, Elizabeth Aspenlieder, was forced to withdraw following an injury, and suddenly this one-woman show didn't have its one woman. Fortunately for the Merrimack, however, actress Haviland Morris, who had recently done the show at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre (below, Morris in that production) agreed to step into at least one pair of the central character's 600 shoes, and will finish out the Lowell theatre's run (which wraps this weekend).

Not having seen Ms. Aspenlieder's performance, I can't make comparison between the two actresses, although it's hard to imagine a savvier or more stylish account of Bad Dates than the one delivered by Ms. Morris. The whirlwind at the center of Rebeck's popular comedy is one Haley Walker, self-made restaurateur and lonely divorced mom, the sort of woman who seems to have it all together on the surface, but behind closed doors turns out to be an ongoing car crash of conflicting emotions and impulses. We can tell as much from the clashing outfits she tries on as the evening progresses (the show's conceit is pressing the audience into the role of collective girlfriend listening to her chatter before a succession of, yes, disastrously bad dates). One moment Haley's elegant in Chanel; the next she looks like a hooker from the seventies. Clearly the woman has issues; her ongoing wardrobe crisis isn't so much a comment on her uncertainty about how to impress a guy as on her uncertainty about herself. The key to the show, of course, is to keep those issues bouncing along like a string of balloons on a breeze of engaging charm.

And charm us the beautifully breezy Ms. Morris certainly does. She expertly nails the lingering twang of Haley's Austin accent (I'm from Texas, I should know), and simply never misses a theatrical beat, even when shifting emotional gears while unzipping one skimpy frock and slipping on a new pair of pumps at the same time. More importantly, she gives the self-centered Haley a good-hearted sense of humor, and even chances a glance or two into the fearful, confused depths of her essentially lonely soul.

The only problem is that in the end said depths aren't all that deep, and neither is the play that frames them. Rebeck leans heavily on our sympathy with Haley's travails - the guy who complains about his colon, the guy who turns out to be gay - but goes light on the self-knowledge that we kind of expect from this type of picaresque journey. Particularly when said journey involves a brush with the law (Haley's done a little creative accounting at that restaurant of hers, even though it's owned by the Romanian mob!). Things turn out happily enough for our heroine - after all, this is a comedy - but we have to wonder if Haley deserves the twist of romantic zen that brings her good fortune, and whether she realizes just how lucky she's really been. And little of Rebeck's writing here qualifies as truly witty; indeed, many of her gambits - the 600 shoes, the gay date - are premises lifted from Sex and the City and its ilk. To be blunt, this vehicle is mostly a used set of wheels. Luckily for us and the Merrimack, the skillful Ms. Morris still takes it for quite a spin.

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