Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates was a hit for Ambler's Act II Playhouse in 2006. While a new production hardly seems necessary, Karen Peakes's sterling performance in this solo show, directed by Elaina Di Monaco, makes the 2003 play a worthwhile non-holiday outing today.
The play’s title suggests a compendium of awful romantic encounters. But Rebeck — who penned Act II's 2016 hit Mauritius and created the NBC drama Smash — builds a bigger story for single mom Hailey.
Hailey entertains us from her bedroom, holding up a pair of high heels, asking, "Do you like these shoes?" Dirk Durossette's Manhattan-apartment bedroom set is littered with shoes: dozens of boxes piled on the floor and bed, plus several display racks. They're nearly all "cute" or were "too wild to pass up."
When a date goes badly, Hailey realizes she can't wear the shoes again because they'll remind her. Her disastrous love life isn't all that unusual, she confides. "I'm just another person who married a moron and then had a lot of shit to deal with."
A restaurant idiot-savant
Hailey supported herself and her 13-year-old daughter Vera by waitressing. But in New York, she discovers she's a "restaurant idiot-savant," capable of managing a trendy hotspot when its Romanian owners are prosecuted for money laundering.
Her success, and her daughter's independence, allow her to start dating, cheered on by her gay brother and well-meaning mother. Peakes has mastered the essential actor skill of speaking one side of a phone conversation so that the audience understands the unheard side as well.
Peakes's utterly natural yet nuanced performance makes Hailey likeable. She frantically searches for date outfits and shoes, sharing details of one terrible encounter while preparing for the next.
At a Buddhist book benefit, she meets the "bug guy." A loser soliloquizes about his cholesterol, his colon, and his ex-girlfriend. Her mother arranges a wretched blind date. She's even stood up, the ultimate indignity.
Her clothing, designed by Jillian Keys, epitomizes Hailey’s quest to find "sexy, not slutty" dresses. One dress earned spontaneous applause on opening night, and though Hailey’s success is debatable, Peakes makes the challenge a real problem, not a joke.
Di Monaco keeps the 95-minute play brisk, but not by stressing laughs. When Hailey shares her longing for a "good guy" and recalls high school's first-love euphoria, we can't help but feel for this lonely mom, however we might view her shoe obsession. "My powers of delusion are really noteworthy," she confesses, but her unstoppable hope shines through. We're her invisible sympathizers, and Peakes is quick and comfortable enough to reply instinctively to the audience's nonverbal responses.
Bigger on the inside
Expert craftsperson Rebeck builds a larger story into Bad Dates involving the restaurant and the Romanian mob, giving it a dramatic twist that feels beyond the play's scope. Because the actor earns our concern, it all works. Peakes, who's lately appeared in several Delaware Theatre Company productions in ensemble roles, makes the best of a long-overdue opportunity to carry a play. Let's hope the next chance comes soon.