By Geary Danihy
Like the growling dog with the wagging tail conundrum, Haviland Morris’s portrayal of Haley Walker, the sole character in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy, Bad Dates, seems to be sending mixed signals. Haley, as seen in this Long Wharf Theatre production, has been out of the dating game for several years, is beset by doubts and bedeviled by a lack of self-confidence – at least that’s what the character says -- but Morris’s take on the transplanted Texan now running a hot Manhattan watering spot exudes certainty and self-assurance. What’s a person to believe?
To completely buy into Rebeck’s chronicle of Haley’s attempts at trolling for a good catch and ending up with a series of bottom-feeders, the audience has to believe that each dating disaster is a harpoon to Haley’s heart – these aren’t just bad dates, they are assaults on a woman’s fragile sense of herself and her desirability. Done right, the audience cares deeply for the lady as she comes back to her apartment to chronicle the latest night out with a loser, and since comedy and tragedy are kissing cousins, the laughter generated by Haley’s tales of dinner with dweebs and nerds should be tinged with just a bit of heartache.
Morris is able to get the laughs, as do two stagehands who work the scene changes in the style of the Blues Brothers, but Morris often handles the role as if she is doing a stand-up comedy routine rather than creating a multi-layered character. Hence, though the evening is entertaining, it lacks a certain emotional resonance.
Perhaps part of the problem is in the stage business director Eric Ting has worked into the play. Rebeck has written the play so that the audience members are addressed as if they are Haley’s best friends invited over to her apartment to hear her latest tale of woe and provide a comforting shoulder to lean on.
This breaking of the fourth wall works well, but it carries with it an element of risk, for it can be taken too far and thus destroy the illusion that we are really communing with Haley. The illusion is tested almost from the first scene, when Haley climbs a ladder in her closet to get the bottom shoebox from a tower of boxes that threatens to tumble. Haley is successful, the audience applauds, and Morris bows. All of a sudden, our suspension of disbelief is challenged – no, that isn’t Haley up there, it’s Haviland Morris playing Haley.
There are enough of these moments – Morris shielding her eyes from the stage lights to get a reaction from the audience; Morris milking comments from the audience about her choice of outfits; Morris saying “I’m sorry” when she muffs a line – that the illusion that we are seeing a woman of a certain age being both amused and abused by the men she opts to date is all but destroyed.
What saves the evening is Rebeck’s writing, specifically her depiction of the various dates from hell that Haley reports on. There’s the man who is fixated on his digestive system and regales Haley with stories of his relationship with his intestines. Then there’s the gay lawyer whom Haley’s mother sets her up with and the man who, supposedly on the rebound from a failed romance, offers Haley more than he cares to deliver. The travails ring true, as was evidenced by the many female heads nodding in the audience and the sprightly conversations during the intermission as ladies shared their own stories of misadventures in the dating game.
Thus, as a “Girls’ night out,” Blind Dates is quite satisfying, but as engaging theater it leaves a lot to be desired.
Bad Dates runs through Sunday, March 22. For tickets or more information call 787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.
This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Citizen-News.