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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Erika Rolfsrud Turns Bad Dates
Into Good Fun

Also see Bob's review of Valhalla

Bad Dates
Erika Rolfsrud
Playwright Theresa Rebeck has been making quite a stir in institutional theatres in New York and throughout the country. Even when comedic, her often well received plays tend to be fierce and weighty. However, Rebeck's one-act, one-actor comedy Bad Dates is entirely another kettle of fish. It is light, commercial and contrived in the manner of situation comedy. In fact, the evening's dénouement is so extremely off the believability path as to suggest that Rebeck did not want to take any chance that audiences might take it for more than the breezy entertainment for which she has striven.

The setting is the rent controlled Manhattan apartment of, I'd say, 35-year-old Haley Walker and her 13-year-old daughter, Vera. The unseen Vera is usually in her own bedroom, whose door is at stage left, listening to blaringly loud rock music.

Haley is dressing for a date. And undressing and dressing again repeatedly as she tries to find her most suitable, attractive garments. There are any number of pairs of shoes and shoe boxes strewn about the apartment, and about 200 shoe boxes in the closet (credit the large, detailed, imaginatively designed set of an old fashioned New York walk-up apartment to William Bloodgood). As Haley prattles on about her shoes, how she acquired them, how they are now too small for her, and the thrilling brand names of some, this viewer, who neither has knowledge of Jimmy Choo nor John and David, and thinks that Chanel makes only perfume, felt his eyes glaze over. It should be noted, that in one of her shoe boxes, there are thick wads of paper currency, setting the stage for last minute revelations.

It is of more interest when Haley tells us that she is a waitress from Texas who came to New York with then five-year-old Vera after divorcing her incorrigibly irresponsible, marijuana smoking lemon of a husband. Once in the Big Apple, Haley obtained a job as a waitress in a restaurant set up for the purpose of money laundering by Rumanian gangsters. When the owners were jailed and other family members were unable to run it, the operation of the restaurant was turned over to the able Haley. She in turn lured a new chef and managed to obtain a rave review in the New York Times. Now the restaurant is a celebrity hot spot and she is something of a minor celebrity herself. After years of not dating because of obligations to her job and her young daughter, Haley is now returning to the dating scene.

By way of explaining why she put off dating for so long, Haley draws parallels between her situation and the vicissitudes of Joan Crawford in the title role of the film Mildred Pierce. However, she has now decided that a Mildred Pierce metaphor should not stop her from dating. Waitress Haley would hardly be likely to use the word metaphor. However, as she seems to misuse the word, its use may be one of Rebeck's jokes.

It is of the most interest during the scenes in which Haley describes her series of Bad Dates. Haley's dating, party and restaurant experiences strike an evocative chord, bringing forth laughter and smiles of recognition.

Most efficacious of all is the performance of Erika Rolfsrud. On stage for the full length of the play and peripatetically changing her clothes, Rolfsrud displays natural ease and excellent comic timing, conveying the full delight of her stories. She also brings an amazing physicality to her Haley. Although obviously abetted by costume designer Sam Fleming, Rolfsrud conveys a glowing fresh beauty as readily as she can conjure a tired, aging presence when appropriate.

The excellence of Erika Rolfsrud is at the heart of the success of director Jackson Gay's production. Although author Rebeck has provided entertaining dialogue and lively, evocative stories, it appears that this is a wisp of a play whose ability to entertain rests squarely on the shoulders of the actress performing it.

Ultimately, Haley's gangster boss returns from prison and is tipped off to the fact that Haley is skimming off some of the restaurant's cash receipts. Haley tells us that she has done so in order to be able to buy some extras for her daughter and, in contrast to her boss' practice, to pay its taxes in order to protect the restaurant (wouldn't her boss have paid inflated taxes in order to launder illegal income?). Haley successfully deals with this situation in what must be the silliest and least believable manner that Rebeck can conjure.

While the theatre world hopefully awaits the breakout hit that will make author Theresa Rebeck a household name, Rebeck's Bad Dates, with the considerable help of the performance of Erika Rolfsrud, is providing Central New Jersey audiences with many a smile these summer nights.

Bad Dates continues performances (Wed. – Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 3 p.m. at the Two River Theatre Company,21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, New Jersey 07701. Box Office:732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.

Bad Dates by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Jackson Gay

Cast:

Haley Walker……………Erika Rolfsrud


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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