Charming actress brings audience along on 'Dates'
LOWELL - In the first five minutes of "Bad Dates," actress Elizabeth Aspenlieder, playing single mom Haley Walker, is deciding between two pairs of shoes as she dresses for a date. She turns to the audience for advice and immediately gets a very vocal response. "I don't really like them, either," she confesses, and with that simple admission, she bonds with the audience, which becomes her confessor, best friend, and disapproving parent all at once.
Theresa Rebeck's surprisingly poignant comedy, now being staged at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, is unapologetically thin in plot and reliant on the personality of the lead actress. It was originally written for the effervescent Julie White, who reprised her New York performance at the Huntington Theatre Company in 2004. Aspenlieder's take on the character is completely different, yet utterly enchanting. While White had a kind of naïve cheerfulness, Aspenlieder exhibits an admirable sense of determination. Much of her charm comes from her ability to draw the audience in as co-conspirator, making the evening feel like an intimate conversation, even if it is mostly one-sided.
All of the action takes place in Haley's bedroom, where we listen to her stories of shoe-shopping (she says she has 600 pairs), Tibetan monks, Mildred Pierce, her 13-year-old daughter, and her work as the manager of a trendy New York restaurant that happens to be owned by the Romanian Mafia. Haley regales us with these anecdotes as she rifles through endless combinations of skirts, tops, dresses, and of course, shoes to prepare for a series of dates. In between those dates, Haley reports on the men she meets, including the gay date, the already-involved date, and the cholesterol-obsessed date. Haley's experiences are funny, familiar, and even a little frightening, but it is Aspenlieder's performance that wins us over.
Director Adrianne Krstansky has encouraged Aspenlieder to find the character's physicality, and the results are irresistible. Whether she's hopping from one foot to the other as she narrows down her choice of shoes, munching like a squirrel on pretzels, rolling across the stage on her ottoman, flopping on the bed with giddy joy, or best of all, demonstrating a series of faces she employs to get a restaurant hostess's attention, Aspenlieder exhibits an easy comfort with the character and the material.
The actress arrives at Merrimack Rep after a two-month run in the show at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, and perhaps having so many performances under her belt has allowed her to relax and enjoy the whirlwind that is Haley. Even as we listen to tales of clichéd dating experiences, we find ourselves rooting for Haley, who focuses on being hopeful no matter what situation presents itself.
Susan Zeeman Rogers's bedroom set is warm and inviting without making us feel like voyeurs, and Deborah Newhall's costumes are a flurry of color combinations and styles.
The end of "Bad Dates" takes a ridiculous turn, but Rebeck's writing is so confident and Aspenlieder's performance so charming, we're willing to suspend our cynicism and go with the flow. "Bad Dates" succeeds because our heroine manages to find the calm in the midst of life's chaos. Even without the perfect pair of shoes, that's something to aspire to.