We can now start to anticipate the end of pandemic isolation and the return of parties with old friends, encounters with new friends, and even – dating?
But perhaps the prospect of getting back to dating makes you nervous, terrified, or just very, very tired. If so, you might find solace and amusement in the misadventures of Haley (Annie Henk). She’s a divorcee and mom who’s just starting to date again after years out of the game, in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy “Bad Dates” – the title of which gives away how things generally go for her.
Directed by Jade Carroll King at Portland Stage Company, this light one-woman show runs onstage through May 2 and online through May 16.
The most noticeable feature in Haley’s spacious New York bedroom – and the first thing we hear her talk about in her show-length monologue – is shoes. She has hundreds of pairs of them, gleaming pumps and spike heels lined up at the edge of the stage, glittering like Christmas in their boxes. And she’s constantly trying them on, pair after pair. Which ones are cute? Which can she no longer walk in?
Haley’s shoes are an easy device to symbolize her character and moment in life: She’s a no-longer-twentysomething mother whose feet may have swollen but who is still fashion-conscious and urbane. She runs a restaurant and is a devotee of fine wine and food.
And she enjoys all of these material pleasures with the passion of someone who’s come to them by luck and pluck: she hasn’t always been financially secure, and even her ascendance in the restaurant world has come about by a half comic, half hard-boiled run-in with Romanian mobsters. In trying on all her oldest, cutest shoes, Haley measures who she’s been and all she’s been through against who she is now.
That person is a woman with grit and a gift for finding humor in her calamities, and Henk’s portrayal is winning, buoyant, and funny. She paces Haley’s monologue with the cadences of legit conversation: listening to her is like listening to your brilliantly disaster-prone girlfriend who somehow always lands on her feet.
Under King’s spirited direction, Henk keeps that conversation moving fluently even as she shimmies into and out of outfit after outfit – and entirely onstage (costumes, by Rodrigo Muñoz, are fun and candy-colored, slinky and glitzy). All these onstage changes are real physical work, and Henk imbues every gesture of them with a sense of Haley’s ebullient, sensual character.
Playwright Rebeck has worked prolifically as a screenwriter and on television series such as “NYPD Blue,” and “Bad Dates,” which premiered in 2004, has a snappy, undemanding, prime-time-style brio that goes down easily. It’s a light play and, overall, a slight one – a diversion and amusement rather than a provocation or deep inquiry into the often problematic dynamics of heterosexual dating.
Still, in moments the show does graze over some weightier gender-role-related issues. Haley’s efforts to find an outfit that she looks hot in but that “doesn’t make me look like a slut” feel loaded, although the question of whose gaze defines a “slut,” and what that even means, goes largely unexplored.
Haley also touches on money’s relationship to consent, and how insisting on paying the tab gives the woman “more latitude” – that is, makes it easier for her to decline to get physical with her date.
And in a scenario that perhaps too many women can relate to (and which anticipates the Kristen Roupenian short story “Cat Person” that briefly broke the internet a few years back) Haley describes how she let a guy she didn’t like “put his tongue down my throat” because it was “the easiest way” to get the date over with.
But mostly, “Bad Dates” keeps things upbeat and funny, even after the plot veers, without much warning or structural coherence, into crime-thriller territory. Maybe this lightness is just what we need right now as we approach the post-pandemic world.
And those of us who’ve grown attached to our in-house pandemic loungewear might also find affirmation in Haley’s final outfit: a slouchy sweatshirt and old jeans, which she demonstrates are totally fine to wear outside the house.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
• Catch three world premiere plays by Maine playwrights on May 1 at “A Dramatic Affair,” a Zoom gala benefit for Congregation Bet Ha’am. Mad Horse Theatre Company presents Brent Askari’s “Tikkun Olam,” about a congregant’s crisis of faith; “June 20/20 reVision(s): A Fire Diary,” Bess Welden’s solo performance about “whiteness, Jewishness, and what she inherited from her father,” and Monica Wood’s “The Male Gaze,” in which a woman feeling overlooked tries to catch her husband’s eye again. FMI: https://bit.ly/3nefMaE.
• Longfellow’s famous epic poem “Evangeline” depicts the displacement of the French-speaking Acadian people at the hands of the British, through the plight of its mythic title character. Now, Penobscot Theatre Company has commissioned the French-speaking Atlanta company Theatre du Reve to create a new work inspired by the poem; it runs as a film through May 9. Visit https://bit.ly/3tN9W2F.
• In a welcome sign of a new season, audition notices are coming up again. Portland Players has announced auditions for “God of Carnage,” to be directed by Benn May on May 1-2, from 2-5 p.m. The company actively seeks performers of color, diverse gender identities, and all abilities. FMI: https://bit.ly/3xkFvDe.
• Finally, do you need a poem today? Of course, you do. And can you not abide another second of looking at a screen to find one? Well, if you have a phone, you can hear a poem anytime, 24/7, through SPACE’s new 2021 Poetry Hotline. From now through June, each week will feature a new local or national poet reading their work. The series launched with Myles Bullen and Myronn Hardy is up as of April 26. Visit https://bit.ly/3aBtOht, or just call 207-828-5607.
— Megan Grumbling