The actor plays Haley Walker, a quite attractive woman around forty years of age who wishes for: a man, some action, stability and, surely, love. She is clearly attached to her thirteen-year-old daughter. Haley has six hundred pairs of shoes, and the play opens with her attempts to find any which fit without causing her excruciating pain as she squeezes her toes in. The initial sequence, while likable, is drawn out and, probably, the least enticing portion of the script.
Haley has left Texas for Manhattan where she works first as a waitress and then eventually comes to manage a restaurant. She has to deal with Romanian gangsters and she sees herself as an "idiot savant." Meanwhile, she continues her quest to find a bright, sympathetic, intriguing man. Instead, she dates one guy who informs her that the dress she is wearing ages her and another who is Buddhist and maintains a fetish (or something) for bugs. During the first hour of the play, Aspenlieder, thanks to absolutely superb direction by Adrianne Krstansky, is in constant motionfrom ditching shoes to changing clothing to connecting with her (never visible) daughter, Vera. Aspenlieder's Haley is always in contact with her audience. Act one is light, amusing, and sometimes just a hoot.
The second section begins with a change of tone and allows Aspenlieder (who has demonstrated acting range through roles in works such as Ethan Frome, Othello, The Comedy of Errors and Angels in America) to demonstrate the depth of her training and performance technique. Finally, it seems that Haley has connected with a man, she anticipates, who cares. The scene is instantly emotional and dramatic. It ends, you might have already guessed, quickly and badly but the sequence provides some welcome balance within the context of this play.
The production is staged in the new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, and the rectangular stage is a fine fit for this show. Costumer Jennifer Tremblay has assembled an amazing array of garments and footwear. The show looks good, as does Aspenlieder.
How, though, does one find a comic rhythm when no one else is on stage to create timing? First, certainly, the actor must fully comprehend her character. At this point, three weeks into the run after a rehearsal process, Aspenlieder is totally in control: these series of moments are all hers. Her strength with comedy has been evident the past two summers with stellar turns in the company's Rough Crossing and The Ladies Man. She is a physical performer who is unafraid to risk. So, mugging and making faces, within the framework of Bad Dates, is indeed most welcome during this cold, harsh winter. Aspenlieder, too, brings a natural warmth. Haley, not young but far from old, is experienced but not without hope.
Rebeck is an able writer whose play The Scene, for example, is an insightful, commanding piece. Bad Dates is funny and effective. At least one reference (perhaps surprising for a play written six years ago) seems, on this day, a bit off. Brooklyn, one infers through Haley's words, is not a very desirable place to be. Well, certain neighborhoods within that borough are currently sought-after and most assuredly trendysee for yourself.
Bad Dates continues at Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts through March 8th. For ticket information. Call (413) 637-3353 or visit www.shakespeare.org.
- Fred Sokol