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We get to know Haley Walker (Haneefah Wood), the lone onstage character in Theresa Rebeck’s crowd-pleasing one-woman show “Bad Dates” (at the Huntington Theatre Company mainstage through March 3), from a series of conversational musings that are defined by sudden changes of topic, narrative zigs and zags, overheard phone calls, brief exchanges with her tween daughter Vera, endearing confidences and, finally, a grand convergence of wildly disparate story threads that don’t tie up into a nice red bow so much as speak to Haley’s arrival at a place of personal responsibility.
It’s only by diving deep under the surface that we come to understand why this is important. Along the way there’s a slow realization that “Bad Dates” has both spine and substance. In other words, this isn’t merely a comedy built from nothing but smoke and mirrors — though mirrors do come into it (how else can a woman check her look?) and there’s a certain amount of writerly misdirection.
From outward appearances, Haley’s life is a model of professional satisfaction. She’s the manager of a trendy New York restaurant, where her ability to put together a stellar wine list and recruit top culinary talent bring her such gratification that she can’t help dwelling on the cosmic satisfaction of discovering, quite by accident, a true calling.
But Haley’s glorious career, replete with the kind of buzz that draws celebrity customers and garners glowing reviews from persnickety food writers, turns out to be something of a grand illusion, a silver haze that fills a darker lining. With breezy élan Haley paints a portrait of pluck rewarded, but here and there we get glimpses of shadowy troubles — mobsters, piles of loose cash, a disgruntled former employee. But her primary focus turns out to be her personal life, which she’s now trying to kick-start after too many years spent concentrating on work. It’s a rough reentry into the dating scene, just as the title tells us.
Haley’s dating disasters include a fellow who turns out to be a spectacularly poor fit courtesy of her mother’s attempt at matchmaking, a cholesterol-obsessed guy on the rebound and an old flame that suddenly, brilliantly reignites, though anyone who’s been burned in love will worry that this last is a case of playing with fire. Other men also dot the periphery of Haley’s story. Her gay brother, who’s egging her on, is one; another is a chap she met at an ill-fated Buddhist dinner party, a gent left unnamed save for the sobriquet “Bug Guy.”
Wood, who played Cassandra in the Huntington's production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” relays Haley’s story with a momentum that brooks not a moment’s doubt. Whether playing a moment with convivial flair, describing the exasperations she endures, or facing up to her missteps in a poignant confessional scene, she inhabits Haley’s life, complete with the character’s wistful desires and self-delusions. It’s a complex role, full of potential pitfalls, but Woods brings Haley fully to life.
Tracing the shape and reach of Haley’s personal problems is the task of this knowing comedy, which takes off like a rocket in an initial segment that blends Wood’s self-assured chatterbox ramblings with a virtual fashion show as she tries on one combination after the next, pulling garments out, slipping them on, and then discarding them in a roundelay of couture. (Credit to costumer Sarah Laux for wardrobe choices that turn this passage into a kaleidoscope of clothing that matches the beats and rhythms of the monologue.) Best of all is a splendid running gag: Endless pairs of exquisitely crafted shoes come into view at the opening of every storage space in her well-appointed bedroom (a gorgeous, multi-layered set by Alexander Dodge that’s just as gorgeously illuminated by David J. Weiner’s lighting design).
There’s a lengthy middle section that feels, just slightly, like the play is gliding along, but never fear: Neither Rebeck, nor director Jessica Stone, has forgotten that the play has a point to make, and if it seems like there’s a fair amount of woolgathering it’s all in the service of the material’s eventual knitting together.
We’re only guests in Haley’s world, but we’re also intimates; everything’s on display, from lacy underthings to mortifying stories of clueless men and their boorish ways, and Haley’s own disclosures grow more personal and pained over time. Her story -- a lost soul’s progress, of sorts -- becomes, by extension, something of our own.
This is a play with a certain texture, a kind of openness that consciously lowers the fourth wall and engages in a little mild interaction with the audience, starting with Haley asking us what we think of her shoes. Once she’s got us warmed up, Wood seems to expect — even anticipate -- the murmurs that her onlookers, now invested in her story, give up at the show’s dramatic and revelatory junctures.
Though the play premiered in 2003 and played at the Huntington Theatre Company with Julie White in 2004, the Huntington's revival feels like an act of zeitgeist genius. In a cultural moment of #MeToo and Time’s Up, Haley’s horror stories of love connections that fizzle instead of spark and male companions that don’t make the grade is sure to hit all the right, resonant notes.
Huntington Theatre Company's “Bad Dates” is extended through March 3 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre.
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