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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Bad Dates is Good Fun

Also see Bob's review of The World Goes 'Round

Bad Dates
Liz McConahay Wanfried
Theresa Rebeck is a deft, essentially serious playwright who more often than not provides us with rather weighty plays. However, periodically, her penchant for lighter, more comedic and, dare I say commercial playwriting comes to the fore. Centenary brought us a delightful revival of Loose Knit, one such of Rebeck's plays last season. Moving forward a decade in Rebeck's oeuvre while hardly missing a beat, Centenary, still in fine fettle, is presenting Rebeck's similarly styled Bad Dates.

Haley Walker, who is in her mid thirties shares a rent controlled Manhattan apartment with her 13-year-old daughter, Vera. For the most part, the never seen Vera is in her own bedroom just out of our sight. When we meet Haley, she is dressing for her first date in too many years. As she tries on several outfits, Haley prattles on about how she has come to this moment. Divorcing her criminally irresponsible, drug addicted husband, Haley left her Austin (Texas) hometown and came to New York with her then five-year-old daughter. She quickly got a job as a waitress at a restaurant owned by Romanian gangsters who used the restaurant to launder money. When, after a police raid, the owners were arrested, other family members wanted to keep the restaurant open. Only Haley (who amusedly refers to herself as turning out to be a "restaurant savant") fully knew the operation and had the savvy to run it for them. Haley redesigned the restaurant, "stole" a chef from another, changed the menu, and managed to get a rave review from the New York Times. Now the restaurant is a hot spot, and Haley herself has become a minor celebrity. After years of not going out, and devoting her energies to her job and her daughter, Haley is now returning to the dating scene.

Among her explanations as to why she has not dated for so long, Haley tells of her fear of the resemblance of a suitor to the man who abused Joan Crawford in the film Mildred Pierce. However, she has now decided that a "Mildred Pierce metaphor" should not stop her from dating. Haley would hardly be likely to use the word metaphor, but, as she misuses the word, its employment here is likely one of Rebeck's many jokes.

Ultimately, Haley's gangster boss returns from prison and is tipped off to the fact that Haley is skimming 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 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 with some theatrically dexterous maneuvers and a farfetched bit of good luck.

The scenes in which Haley's describes her series of bad dates are by far of more interest than the convoluted tale of the Romanian gangsters, as Haley's dating, party and restaurant experiences strike an evocative chord, bringing forth laughter and smiles of recognition. Rebeck does a terrific job of making us feel what it must be like to be a single, self-supporting, no longer really young woman in the Big Apple.

Carl Wallnau has directed with an unerring accuracy which suggests that he has long observed the behaviors and mechanics of women dressing and undressing. The generously fulsome set by Bob Phillips with his added rooms behind the doors of the living room set (including a working bathroom sink) and a city skyline beyond may be a bit too nice for a Manhattan walk-up, but along with its well designed clutter and plethora of shoes, it adds to the production's pleasures.

Liz McConahay Wanfried (known to us as Liz McConahay at the time of her appearances on Broadway in The Full Monty and the Studio 54 Cabaret) is a total delight in the role of Haley. Wanfried combines just the right proportion of anxiety, breeziness, self deprecation, amusement, determination, intelligence and joie de vivre with superb comic timing in her personification of Haley. Rebeck has provided a terrific showcase for an actress such as Wanfried who has the depth of skill needed to make us embrace Haley.

In reviewing this play in the Two River Theatre production in 2007 in which Erika Rolfsrud excelled as Haley, I wrote that , "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." Seeing Bad Dates so well and successfully performed anew, I would like to amend that statement and say that Rebeck has provided entertaining dialogue, lively, evocative stories, and a terrific multi-dimensional role for an actress, such as Wanfried, who has the depth of skill to make us embrace Haley and the entire enterprise.

Bad Dates continues performances (Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 7:30 pm) through March 6, 2011, at the Centenary Stage Company Sitnik Theatre in the Lackland Center on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown 07840; Box Office:908-979-0900; online: www.centenarystageco.org.

Bad Dates by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Carl Wallnau

Cast
Haley Walker............Liz McConahay Wanfried


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- Bob Rendell



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