Shoes, everywhere shoes! They're the most visible and defining element present onstage for Bad Dates, Theresa Rebeck's new play at Playwrights Horizons, even before the play itself starts. Their very presence immediately defines their owner, but that woman, like Bad Dates itself, can't simply be taken at face value.
As played by Julie White, the woman behind all the shoes emerges quickly as a woman obsessed with externals. She frets throughout the first scene about the perfect outfit to wear on her upcoming date, trying multiple combinations of tops and skirts to find the one that will make the perfect impression. Her first time re-entering the dating scene after years away due to marriage, a child, divorce, and a successful (if spotty) career as a restaurateur, she wants everything to be perfect.
Of course, as the play's title suggests, the chances of that happening on her first time out - or maybe even her second, third, or fourth - are slim. But whether despairing over a poorly-fitting pair of Chanel pumps or an all-too-zen conversation between bug lovers at a Buddhist fund-raiser, Haley must deal with her own issues as she muses on everyone else's. She has her own prejudices and preconceptions that must be dealt with before she'll be able to accept someone else into her somewhat insular life.
It's in exploring that side of the topic that Rebeck finds her strongest voice in Bad Dates. She has adroitly captured the friction existing between Haley's experiences, expectations, hopes, and fears at any given moment, providing even the most comically unfortunate happening with layers of meaning that cannot be completely stripped away until the show's final moments. Rebeck is careful to depict Haley as a complete, imperfect person, yet one balanced dramatically whether dealing with humorously oblique references to the Joan Crawford film Mildred Pierce or using the Romanian mafia as a major plot point.
Rebeck only has a moment or two of indiscretion regarding Haley's characterization, threatening to allow her to break out of her Everywoman mold into something less relatable. These moments are few and far between, however, thanks in no small part to White, perhaps an ideal conduit for Rebeck's creation. White establishes an instant rapport with the audience, a good-natured sister-type with a welcoming smile and attitude. Though adept at delivering Rebeck's dryly witty observations about human interaction, White's dramatic sensibilities are keen enough to quiet an audience ready to laugh at anything and hold them rapt at attention during even the most serious moments. It all seems perfectly natural in her hands.
Less wholly successful is John Benjamin Hickey's direction. While he works well with White and gives her more than her share of priceless moments, he has trouble maintaining forward momentum throughout; the times White must step offstage for a moment, always difficult in a one-person show, often approach deadly here. Derek McLane has provided an attractive New York apartment set, while Mattie Ullrich's wide array of costumes ideally represent Haley at each point in the play's roller coaster of events.
And, thanks to Rebeck and White, what an enjoyable, surprising ride Bad Dates proves to be.