Adventures in Courtship

It's easy to develop a crush on the irresistible lead of ATC's 'Bad Dates'

If I were single, I'd be on the phone right now asking Haley Walker to go out with me. Haley has a vibrant spirit; she's smarter than she thinks she is, and she can regale you all night with funny stories. And, yes, I must admit, she does look fetching in her underwear. I don't know how easy she'd be to live with, but I'm certain Haley would be a great date.

The problem is, what if I was a bad date? Hundreds of people would know it the minute Haley got home. She'd trudge into her bedroom, which is situated on the stage of the Temple of Music and Art, and regale an entire Arizona Theatre Company audience with every sorry detail of the evening. And she'd do it with such spirit and humor and lack of malice that those hundreds of people couldn't help taking her side, even as they were thinking that she ought to know better than to date somebody like me.

Haley, splendidly played by Erika Rolfsrud, is the glowing, pulsing center of Theresa Rebeck's one-woman play Bad Dates. Rebeck wrote it specifically for a different actress, a friend of hers, but Rolfsrud slips into the role as if it were custom-made for her. Rolfsrud's delivery is honest and spontaneous, and her rhythm and energy never falter.

Her Haley seems like a composite of several friends of mine, and probably friends of yours: youngish but experienced women who are vulnerable yet resilient, chattery but not insipid, warm-hearted and ironical but never bitter, at a loss to explain why so many promising dates can go so wrong.

"Do you like these shoes?" she asks the audience as she bounds into her bedroom, preparing to dress for her first date in something like five years. She's a single mom who left her druggie husband in Texas, moved to New York and landed a job as a waitress at a restaurant that launders money for the Romanian mob. When the owner got thrown into jail, she was the only person who understood the restaurant well enough to be promoted to manager. "I'm a restaurant idiot savant," she says with self-deprecation, but she's savvy enough to have turned the place into one of Manhattan's trendier dining spots. Life is going well for her; she's gotten over the notion that by dating the wrong guy, she'll meet the bad end of the title character in the old movie Mildred Pierce, and she's ready to start going out again.

Unfortunately, with men as with shoes, she's more attracted to the look than the fit. So through the course of the evening, Haley slips in and out of sexy little dresses, wincing through one shoe change after another, getting sartorial advice from her offstage daughter, and regaling her gay brother (by phone) and us (live) with all the gory details of her latest dating misadventure. In a way, it's like listening to the obsessions of a teenage girl--all boys and clothes and shoes and "Does he like me?" and "Do I look like a slut in this dress?" But at age 30-something, Haley is more self-aware than most teenagers, and she knows perfectly well that her wry observations are vaguely pubescent, which only increases her ironical detachment.

Bad Dates is primarily a character study; this is by no means a deep play, and the script is not without flaws. The dramatic conflict near the end, for example, that allows Haley to struggle toward dating salvation, seems rather contrived. But Haley's personality, conveyed by Rolfsrud, is irresistible.

Of course, Rolfsrud is not carrying the whole show alone on her milky-white, undercaressed shoulders. Director Aaron Posner had a sure hand in the Rolfsrud-Haley mind meld, and he keeps his actress in constant, fluid, meaningful motion, except for a few moments of necessary repose. (A high point of the show is watching Rolfsrud's ultimately valiant struggle into her pantyhose, an awkward, potentially embarrassing but mundane task that she achieves with tremendous yet casual flair.) William Bloodgood's neat but lived-in scenic design almost avoids making Haley's bedroom look too palatial for a Manhattan waitress' apartment, and his treatment of Haley's closet of towering shoeboxes must have been based on photos of my wife's side of our walk-in.

Like Haley's 600 pairs of shoes, Bad Dates is flimsy but eye-catching, and even if it may go out of fashion in a few seasons, for now it's cute enough to fit nearly any occasion.

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