Going It Alone: A One Woman Drama at Shakespeare & Company

David Begelman

Playwright Theresa Rebeck, author of Bad Dates, calls herself a feminist who considers women “as fully human as men.” The central character of her one-person monologue, Haley Walker, intends to drive home the point—in spades. Most of her dialogue is addressed to her audience, and her gusto for male-bashing goes from the hilarious to the peevish in quick starts.

Haley grouses about her unsuccessful ventures with men often enough for us to question whether her real beef should be with the choices she makes, rather than the dunderheads she dates. Yet she is convincing enough in her litany of complaints to invest them with an aura of credibility. Despite her frequent bellyaching, she manages to make her audience sympathize with her, as if they shared experiences that are universally disheartening.

Haley’s ex-husband Roger was an obvious deadbeat who traded their Toyota for three pounds of weed, and abandoned her with a five year-old daughter, Vera, before Haley became a divorced waitress eking out a living in New York City.

Then there is the felonious owner of the restaurant in which she works, a Romanian mobster who never pays his taxes. Next, there is the guy who on a dinner date announces that Haley’s dress makes her look old. Not content with insulting remarks, he prates on about his alarming cholesterol levels, while ordering scallops wrapped in bacon swimming in cream sauce (This, after going on about the delicate condition of his colon).

It isn’t over. When it comes to male catastrophes, there was the attractive man on a date arranged by Haley’s mother. Except he turns out to be gay. Or the Columbia University law professor from Texas who is playing house with another woman while Haley is stood up by him in a prearranged rendezvous in her apartment. There is all hell to pay when a call to the cad is answered by another woman’s voice, and the professor’s payback takes the form of rattling off a series of less than charitable remarks at a less than comfortable decibel level.

Then there is the mystical fellow Haley encounters at a Buddhist benefit who has a sacred thing for bugs. And so on. Even if all her choices are bad, we can certainly understand her exasperation.

Elizabeth Aspenlieder, a Canadian actress who has performed with Shakespeare & Company for 14 years, has distinguished herself in comedic roles. She is a commanding Haley Walker. The actress radiates the kind of energy, humor, and exasperation you just know could never be squeezed out of an actress whose principal emotion was vulnerability overshadowing the angry zing to make it interesting.

Ms. Aspenlieder’s Haley is also a no-nonsense parent who can switch roles in a heartbeat from doting on her daughter, Vera (a girl with a silent, yet significant, presence offstage), to giving her in the child’s moments of youthful insensitivity or irresponsibility, a timely what-for.

Ms. Aspenlieder’s characterization of a heroine with an edge is notable for yet another reason. She is adept at the purely physical demands of the role. She negotiates the stage impressively, especially when it comes to numerous costume changes. Bulleting across her bedroom with her funky bathrobe of pink, purple, and green, she almost seems drowned in a sea of shoes. These, Haley’s obsession with amassing an Imelda Marcos collection of 600 pairs of footware, are in keeping with her effort to get dolled up for men. Many of the items pinch when she wears them, despite their being high-end merchandise purchased through channels at a fraction of the original cost.

Ms. Aspenlieder’s initial reaction to playing Haley Walker was that the character was “shallow and vapid.” Some looks are deceiving. Haley is so skilled at the restaurant business, she quickly rises to the level of “idiot savante” at the trade, while her Romanian boss is still in stir. She also finds a way to skim dough off the top to pay the taxes her boss is intent on evading. (It’s not entirely clear whether Haley, far from being the industrious accountant, is little more than an embezzler who stashes the loot in boxes in her bedroom closet.)

No matter. When hauled into a police station, she is rescued by the “bug man,” who turns out to be a lawyer with enough know-how to get her off the hook. Don’t look now, but Ms. Rebeck’s drama fast devolves into something considerably less than a play charged with feminist rhetoric. Not only is Haley not as downtrodden as she reminds us she is, she is positively conniving. And when the law catches up to her, who comes to the rescue? Shades of the deus ex machina of the old comedies: a man! He is the “bug man” of an older scenario, a chap who is now viewed by Haley as having redemptive qualities as a human being. Hardly an ending with a Germaine Greer or Betty Friedan thrust.

Maybe something can be said for men—from time to time. But is the message of the play that this is so because we occasionally find them bursting with an undiscovered stock of humanity, or because, like the bug man, they on occasion harbor enough resourcefulness to rescue us at the eleventh hour?

Bad Dates opened at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, Massachusetts, on January 9, 2008, and continues until March 8, 2008. Evening performances are at 7:00 PM, and matinees are at 2:00 PM. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at (413)-637-3353 or online at www.shakespeare.org.

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