- by Theresa Rebeck
- Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner
- Produced by Olney Theatre Center
- Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
“Oh, god, these things hurt,” referring to shoes in the opening lines of playwright Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates. Haley Walker, an almost 40, divorced mother, alone in her New York City digs, lives in a hyper-kinetic society, where feelings are trivialized and crushed. Gradually throughout this 90-minute play, we identify with this lady’s fetish for changing shoes as if she’s searching for her soul.
High heels, pumps and stilettos lurk everywhere like alter-egos. Stalwart amidst the hundreds of boxes, Haley tries them on, baring her soles and her soul, in a series of scenes framed by blackouts. A single-mom to a 13-year-old daughter, Haley moved up in the world-at least in latitude-from Austin, Texas, to New York City several years back after walking out on a bad marriage. She started as a plate-toting waitress, and now manages the restaurant owned by the Romanian mafia, an important climactic detail. Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio throw birthday parties in the A-list venue. She can drop names like that of broadcaster/political advisor George Stephanopoulous. She’s a wonder-woman, conqueror of her own world. She lives quite well, judging from her two bedroom layout in the Big Apple. And scenic designer Milagros Ponce de Leon backdrops this whimsical fairy tale with an impressive thrust stage set-a compact tender trap that doubles as a collector’s shelf-lined bedroom.
Actress Melissa Flaim plays the part to the hilt as she releases the stops on her character’s pent-up energy in a bravura tour-de-force performance. Haley is a rock-solid, honest, upright woman. But the time is ripe and she’s downright needy for a man. She is ready to shop ‘til she drops for a name-brand mate. Haley is a complex character, sort of a contemporary female Hamlet, who feels the slings and arrows of social injustice, but takes off her clothes and puts on new ones to rebuild her identity.
Lee Mikeska Gardner, well-known as a director and award-winning local actress, keeps Flaim’s mania logically motivated so that Haley’s multi-tasking outfit changes seem of earth-shaking importance. Name-brand shoes and boxes spill out over the thrust stage, even into the audience. There’s one nice, interactive moment when Haley engages an audience member as she retrieves a shoe box from under a front-row seat. And some of Flaim’s one-line zingers elicit nods of recognition and audience empathy.
Another interactive moment worthy of mention is when Haley asks if anyone remembers the 1946 film noir Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford. There’s a parallel between the movie melodrama and the reality of Haley’s ambition to keep her daughter well-heeled in worldly possessions in spite of a no-good husband. But is Haley living the Hollywood fantasy or her own? That’s the contradiction that haunts this play throughout.
When bad dates happen to this good woman, Flaim’s statuesque stage presence conveys the kind of competent career woman that scares men away. Her mother never warned her that talking flat-out to men about their flaws never works. At the same time, Haley is burdened with some self-delusions of her own that ultimately knock her off her high-heeled status. And Flaim captures the quirky gestures that betray a ditzy side with poise. Haley’s not a victim. But when victimized, her vulnerability shows.
While the passion for $400 Jimmy Choo shoes may seem bizarre, it also says a lot about Haley’s rise in social status. Remember, she’s from Austin, the city with the slogan “Keep Austin Weird.” Haley’s no weirdo; she’s just surrounded by them, such as that mysterious Zen Buddhist who communes with bugs. But Haley is also engulfed in corruption. You just have to follow the money.
While the plot in Bad Dates stresses our suspension of disbelief, the character of Haley Walker does jar us into caring and breaking barriers to reach out to each other again. The coincidences, as unreal as they seem, box loose ends together for a satisfying end.
- Running Time: about 1:30 (no intermission).
- When: Wed. through Sundays at 7:45 p.m.; Matinees on Wed., Sat., and Sun. at 1:45 p.m. (except on April 2) until April 20. Audio-described performance: Wed., April 2 at 7:45 p.m.; Sign-interpreted: Thurs., April 3 at 7:45 p.m. Post-show discussion: Wed., April 2 at 7:45 p.m. (with the actress).
- Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Maryland 20832, Free parking.
- Tickets: $25-$48. Discounts available for groups, seniors and students.
- Info: Call box office 301-924-3400; or consult the website.