Bad Dates with Elizabeth Aspenlieder of Shakespeare & Company

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Elizabeth Aspenlieder in Therea Rebeck's Bad Dates,photo © 2009 Kevin Sprague
Elizabeth Aspenlieder in Therea Rebeck's Bad Dates,photo © 2009 Kevin Sprague

Bad Dates
by Theresa Rebeck

directed by Adrianne Krstansky
with Elizabeth Aspenlieder

Shakespeare & Company

January 9 – March 8, 2009, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre

Theresa Rebeck’s solo play, Bad Dates, is Shakespeare & Company’s first offering in its first winter season. There’s a lot to be grateful in this, and it goes beyond having an alternative to traveling to New York City or Boston in the winter weather for decent theatrical entertainment. Not that theater in the Berkshires disappears at the end of summer. In fact Williams’ Dialogue One Theatre Festival gave us a feast of solo theater back in November, but it is still a great thing to have activity at Shakespeare & Co. in the blasts of January, especially of this piquant and entertaining sort.

Elizabeth Aspenlieder has been with Shakespeare & Company for fourteen years. This past summer her touching, fully-rounded Bianca was one of the many high points of their excellent production of Othello. She has a great reputation for comedy, which was thoroughly borne out by her portrayal of Haley Walker, the divorced mother of a thirteen-year-old daughter, who moved to New York from Austin, Texas, took a job as a waitress, and showed such a good head for the restaurant business, the she soon became manager, when the Rumanian mafioso owner was packed off to prison. The action takes place at the beginning and end of a five-year period and consists of Haley’s monologues as she dresses for or reacts to a succession of bad dates. We meet her in her bedroom, which is decorated in an odd, mildly clashing assortment of warm colors, mostly oranges and reds. While she talks, she is usually trying on dresses to wear on her dates along with her enormous collection of shoes, many of which no longer fit her. The neverending changes keeps Ms. Aspenlieder constantly busy, as she shares her fears and frustrations with us, and tells us a string of painful and hilarious encounters with the opposite sex. Sometimes the room is scattered with shoes and shoeboxes, but some of these shoeboxes, we learn, contain things other than shoes, like Haley’s vibrator, or cash—lots of it.

Haley Walker has her foibles (not least her 600 pairs of shoes), but she is fundamentally an admirable person, in fact one of the more likable comic heroines I’ve seen in a while. Hard-working and smart, she is able to recognize a situation which allows her to apply her talents, make the most of the opportunity, and to be grateful for it. Her insecurities emerge in the sometimes grotesque combinations of tops, skirts, and shoes she devises. Her ex-husband is a loser who sells their car to buy a large quantity of pot. Haley put him behind her geographically. In her new life in New York she is cautious about returning to the dating scene, even put off it by some early disasters, which include an undiplomatic fellow who tells her she looks old and proves to be obsessed with his cholesterol and his bowels. These men are bad enough in themselves, but they also fail to appreciate Haley, who is attractive, intelligent, articulate, and knows good food and wine. What more could a man ask for?

Haley has a somewhat alcoholic girlfriend, who eventually becomes the bartender in her restaurant. One evening this friend takes her to a benefit dinner for a Buddhist publisher. In the seating arrangement at the al fresco affair, they are separated, and Haley is assigned to the “weirdo table,” where the conversation turns to communication with the insect world. There she meets a man, whom she somehow begins to find mildly attractive. This she attributes to her own desperation, and she dismissively calls him the “bug-man.” However, he has a way of coming back into her life. His spiritual inclinations also have a way of implying that many of the seemingly fortuitous events and encounters in Haley’s life are not entirely the work of chance.

The play is full of anecdote. There is even a strong narrative line, set energetically in motion by Haley’s constant trying-on of shoes and her story of how she made her first acquisitions in a discount shop in Austin. However, as a comedy of character, it’s really all about Haley.

The author, Theresa Rebeck, is one of the more often produced playwrights of her generation. Her latest play, The Understudy, was a great success at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this past summer. She has written not only plays, but novels, screenplays, and teleplays. I remember her Harriet the Spy as one of the brighter moments in my days of juvenile movie-going, before my youngest son acquired his taste for Noel Coward and Billy Wilder. The Understudy showed some hints of Rebeck’s background in writing for television, which came across as just a hint of sit-com humor. Bad Dates, on the other hand, struck me as a stage work through and through. As I reflected on it, it occurred to me that this impression had more to do with Adrianne Krstansky’s direction and Elizabeth Aspenlieder’s own, thoroughly theatrical technique. In fact this production admirably revealed what a fine craftsman she is. From the beginning, she showed a firm control of pacing, both in her physical routines and in her delivery of Haley’s dismal narratives and her sharp, genuinely witty jokes. Her tempo was a trifle deliberate, focusing our attention on every detail and making sure nothing got lost. This was perfectly suited to the rhythms of the scenes and Haley’s speech—which, I should note, is free from a Texas accent—as well as the shallow but broad space of the Bernstein Theatre. Of course that’s part of Haley’s style as well: a seasoned communicator from her restaurant work, she wants us—whoever we are—to understand her situation. This becomes especially important towards the end of the play, when Haley explains the decisions which threaten to land her in deep trouble.

Between Dialogue One and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where Campbell Scott played in Ronan Noone’s The Atheist, I’ve been immersed in solo theater over the past year, and most of the plays, especially the Williamstown student performances, have tended to be intense and existential. Bad Dates is in itself more relaxed and devoted to entertaining the audience than most examples of this ambitious genre, but it didn’t really feel like one-person theater, and that was a good thing in this case. Sitting in the audience was more like a transformation into some airy being—or the proverbial fly on the wall—so that we could be present in Haley’s bedroom and listen sympathetically to her vicissitudes. In spite of Aspenlieder’s impressive craft, she also seemed thoroughly natural, and we could respond to Haley as if she were a real person. In addition to us, she communicates with her invisible—and indifferent—daughter, and her gay brother, who, over the phone, offers companionship, but no usable practical advice. Haley has to go it alone, suffering her pains and gaining wisdom—alone.

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