Elizabeth Aspenlieder Sparkles in Bad Dates at Shakespeare & Company

Buoyant Theresa Rebeck Comedy a Perfect Antidote for the Midwinter Blues

By: - Jan 19, 2009

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Shakespeare & Company presents Bad Dates by Theresa Rebeck, Directed by Adrienne Krstansky, with Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Haley Walker. Set Designer, Susan Zeeman rogers; Lighting Designer, Matthew Miller; Costume Designer, Jennifer Tremblay; Sound Designer, Dave Wilson; Technical Director, Robert Brown; Stage Manager, Molly Henninghausen; Props Designer, Ian P. Guzzone; Master Electrician, Scott Carpenter; Paint Charge, Christian Schmitt; Sound Engineer, Michael Pfeiffer; Wardrobe, Shea Kelly; House Managers, Dana Harrison, Frances Slote.
Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA, January 9 to March 8, 2009. Two hours with one 18 minute intermission.
Shakespeare & Company in Lenox begins 2009 with the one-woman show, Theresa Rebeck's comedy, Bad Dates. It continues through March 8 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.

Professional productions in the moribund Berkshire winter are extremely rare, and what makes this effort all the more daring is that it is slated for a full two month run.  The gamble is likely to pay off for them.  Bad Dates is a joyful evening with a rising star, one that is already attracting young ticket buyers from the nearby colleges and ski resorts in addition to the more traditional Berkshire audiences.

The merging of the adroit writing of Theresa Rebeck to the formidable comic talents of Elizabeth Aspenlieder is potent, resulting in theatrical magic. The portrayal of Haley Walker, a working mom with a complicated life, demonstrates both her acting chops and the depth of her dramatic training. In her hands, not only does Haley generate deep belly laughs, but she also makes you care about her well being.

Bad Dates, written in 2003, is about being successful and on the prowl in the Big Apple. This is not nearly as glamorous as one might think, but in Aspenlieder's hands it becomes alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. She infuses Haley with little tics and nervous habits that are instantly recognizable and all too human.

There is nothing new in a story about a single mom who starts dating again. In Haley's case, she finds herself running a popular restaurant and raising a teenage daughter. Her dates are replete with the  lies, obsessions and deceits of the men she sees, and still she has a tendency to be nice to them even while being misled and insulted. Haley also seems to lack a sense of balance when it comes to men, she turns down good ones for silly reasons, and has multiple dates with others who should never gotten beyond the first.

She does all this while dealing with her busy life which includes enduring rainstorms and insults at a zen retreat, a Romanian mob that is laundering money, and a mom who arranges a date for her....with a gay man! The tales that emerge are very colorful:

"And then I realize, in this sort of strange, hallucinatory moment, that the bug guy is looking kind of good, and the things he's saying about bugs are really kind of fascinating and it is then that I realized that maybe it has been too long since I've been on a date."

Haley never stops prattling. She uses the audience as her sounding board and confidante. This actually works brilliantly in the intimate setup at the Elayne Bernstein Theatre where there are perhaps a hundred seats.  The audience sits on the edge of her cluttered New York apartment bedroom, piled high with boxes of shoes - hundreds of pairs of them - and for which she has a thing.

As she tries on one pair after another, we discover that the shoes are a metaphor for her dates. She has outgrown some, others hurt her, some feel comfortable, others are too flashy, or conservative, yet she is sure that, as with her dates, somewhere there is the choice that will be just perfect.

She explains their importance to us in a totally  hysterical opening scene in which we discover that if a date is a failure, the shoes she wore become forever banned from her wardrobe. Because she can't bring herself to throw them away, her past surrounds her even in her personal sanctuary.

As the play unfolds, Aspenlieder slowly builds an invisible web of rapport and sympathy with the audience.

This becomes apparent when the second half begins and Haley is joyously astride her bed, triumphant. "I have just had a good date," she says.  "In fact, more than one!" The audience, responds warmly, laughing and applauding her success. The happiness is as much ours, as Haley's.

Aspenlieder's versatility as an actor is impressive, the result of having inhabited a wide variety of roles and styles over the years, from Shakespeare to Kushner and Stoppard. Nevertheless, this performance is clearly her greatest challenge to date. Not only must she make Haley funny, she also has to make her human and believable. To this end she has created a vibrant and breezy personality for her alter ego. Women may recognize her as the close friend they've known - and confided in - for years; men - straight men, that is - might like to date her. Gay men will certainly nod in agreement that men are born to lie, and their suitors doomed to believe them.

Her role is perfectly wrought, both the intimate moments and the one of sheer terror. After a heavy drinking date, she plays the tipsy woman, finding the sweet spot between overdoing it and slight reticence that makes it totally believable.  It is one of the highlights of the evening when she plops down, clutches her knees and fiddles absently with the ottoman as she reveals what transpired.

The one moment that did not work as well as it might is where she makes a variety of faces in an attempt to get an employee to bring her date the check. Here a little less Carol Burnett and a bit more subtlety might have elicited more laughs.

Theresa Rebeck's comedy-with-undertones is well crafted, though nobody would argue that it is "serious" theatre. Rebeck co-wrote Omnium Gatherum with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and her Mauritius recently ran in New York. Just as misogyny has its advocate in David Mamet, Rebeck, a feminist, takes on the more difficult task of deconstructing relationships, and finding the complex truths inherent in them. These insights are another reason this show succeeds so well.

Adrianne Krstansky directed - one might even say choreographed - this show. Haley Walker is always in motion, fussing, fidgeting, dressing, undressing, eating, drinking and phoning her friends. This is not window dressing, but part and parcel of the complex characterization. Aspenlieder doesn't just inhabit the role, she literally throws herself into it.

This is the second production in Shakespeare & Company's new Production and Performing Arts Center. The complex includes a spacious new scene shop. The set for Bad Dates is an early product of that facility, and bodes well for future productions. While sturdy and functional, it is believable, nicely detailed and the best use of the black box space to date.  Designer Susan Zeeman Rogers is to be commended, as is the technical team behind the scenes. Their work was flawless. There is  a credit for Ian P. Guzzone as Props Designer and Jennifer Tremblay for Costumes and both deserve a round of applause. The way clothes, shoes and household items go flying around the stage, it has to be a monumental task to clean up the mess after each performance.

The only question remaining is whether this show will succeed in a community used to hibernating in the winter. Audiences will love it if they venture out.  Most of us get antsy as cabin fever begins to set in. So there is some motivation. And Valentine's Day is coming and that is cause for an evening out as well.

When Elizabeth Aspenlieder began rehearsals for Bad Dates in December, she likened this one woman show to having to climb her own Mount Greylock nightly.  She has reached the summit of her craft. We recommend seeing it even if you have not dated in  a while. Not only will it bring back memories of your own bad dates, but it will give you something to talk about during the remaining weeks of this horrid New England winter.

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Larry Murray also blogs at Arts America