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Dating Walter Dante
Raven Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Barnum and American Idiot

Dating Walter Dante
Brigitte Ditmars, Michael Boone, Kristin Collins and Jason Huysman
The story of Drew Peterson, the former cop of a Chicago suburb who was indicted for the murder of his third wife and is suspected of murdering his fourth, is understandably fascinating. Chicago actor and playwright Jon Steinhagen has written a play obviously inspired by the case, in particular by a young woman's decision to date and become engaged to Peterson even after he had become a notorious suspected serial killer of his wives. There are many ways one might go with a play about the situation. It might resemble Hitchcock's film Suspicion, in which a wife suspects her husband of plotting her murder. Or, more whimsically, Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, with a dead wife returning to meddle in the new affair. Or even a farcical sitcom in which best friends and a former husband conspire to stop the involvement. Steinhagen has tried all three of these concepts with Dating Walter Dante and, even if that weren't two too many, he doesn't do any of them well.

His heroine is Laura Bakersfield (Kristin Collins), a thirtyish divorcee who meets suspected murderer Dante at a bar as she reluctantly returns to the dating scene after a hiatus following a divorce from her husband of nine years. We don't see exactly what attracts her to Dante (Jason Huysman), except that he's good looking and charming. It's possible she may have some self-esteem issues or something drawing her to abusive partners (it's mentioned in dialogue that her ex was bad to her, but there's no additional evidence of that). Laura seems simply ready to move on, and trusts her instincts about Walter over the obvious risks the relationship poses. In fact, Walter is quite a gentleman, and the script seems to suggest his innocence more than his guilt. As a result, there's no tension or suspense that Laura might really be in jeopardy. (A man unjustly suspected of wrongdoing? There's another Hitchcockian theme that might have worked.)

Her meddling friends are Suzanne and Harper Liff (Brigitte Ditmars and Michael Boone). She's a shrill girlfriend who vacillates between trusting Laura's judgment and trying to protect her from Dante. He's the bumbling, overeating husband who nonetheless convinces Suzanne to supervise Laura and Dante, following them on a weekend getaway to Michigan. The Liffs' pursuit of Laura and Dante is improbable and not funny enough to serve as comic relief. Laura's ex, Sam (Scott Allen Luke), gets involved but, despite the earlier references to him as an abusive husband, he comes off as more immature jock than anyone threatening. Dante's first wife Ellen (Stacie Barra) speaks to Laura in a dream, but has little impact on anything. There's also a standard-issue detective, played by Antoine Pierre Whitfield.

The play opens with each of the characters, save Dante, addressing the audience and giving alternate theories about the story's genre. One says it's a comedy, but another contradicts to call it a drama. Ellen tells us it's a ghost story, while the detective says it's a crime mystery. "You're all wrong," Laura tells us. "It's a love story." The same story can of course appear to have different meanings according to the point-of-view of the observer, as in the classic Japanese film Rashomon. Steinhagen doesn't decide which of these concepts his play is to be—and while there might be a way to make the concept of multiple viewpoints and tones work (though I canīt picture how it would), it doesn't here. It's not helped by his pedestrian dialogue, which director Cody Estle and cast struggle to make sound credible. There is probably a good and entertaining play to be written around the premise of a woman dating an alleged wife killer, but this world premiere production at the Raven Theatre, sadly, isn't it.

Dating Walter Dante will play the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago, through March 24, 2012. Tickets available online at www.raventheatre.com or by phone at 773-338-2177.


Photo: Dean LaPrairie

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-- John Olson



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