Julie White in Bad Dates
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Julie White in Bad Dates
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Julie White gets my vote. In fact, she gets a couple of my votes: one for Miss Accomplished Prop Mistress 2003 and another for Miss Indefatigable On-Stage Business 2003. Earlier this season, she spent much of Daniel Stern's lame-brained Barbra's Wedding preparing a coulibiac while arguing with her doltish husband about the Barbra Steisand-James Brolin nuptials going on deafeningly next door. During the course of that play, matters between her and spouse deteriorated so maddeningly that she packed a bag quickly and threatened to leave forever. White carried off the required action with an aplomb that was obviously acquired through lengthy theater experience -- more than once in a Theresa Rebeck work -- and five seasons doing sitcom duty on Grace Under Fire.

Now, she's playing the restaurateur mother of a 13-year-old girl in Rebeck's one-hander Bad Dates. (What is the sound of one hand clapping? In this case, not much.) Back on the dating market after a long absence, Haley is seen charging around her spacious but cluttered Manhattan bedroom, girding her lean loins to meet new prospects. Because she has a shoe-buying compulsion -- she denies it's a fetish, then admits that it is -- she tries on many of the models that lie either loose or boxed around Derek McLane's cluttered set. Just to name a few of the 600 pairs she claims to own, she trots out Jimmy Choo's, Joan & David's, and classic Chanel pumps that, sadly, no longer fit. (What? No Manolo Blahniks worth showing off?)

Haley's busy, busy, bush with footwear -- and also with clothes -- as she addresses the audience throughout the play. "I look like a hooker," the nervous woman observes when she puts on a short brown number that's ruched like an Austrian curtain. She's out of it in an instant and into another of the innumerable dresses or separates with which costume designer Mattie Ullrich has filled a very visible upstage closet. There may never have been a solo show with a higher wardrobe budget, woe to Playwrights Horizons' financial planners; nowhere in the program are thanks offered to generous donors who might have eased the burden.

Besides shoeing and sheathing her slim self, there's plenty more for White to do as the frenzied Haley. There's lipstick to be applied and lotion to be rubbed in and nail polish to be removed and a white phone to be used. (Why no exercise bike?) The thesp has a few walks and runs to execute on her long, fabulous legs and her hands are always busy, even if she's just talking (especially if she's just talking). She frequently does a melisma thing on isolated syllables: One declaration comes out as "I am on a date with a ga-a-a-a-a-ay man." She finds endless ways to experiment with inflections and pauses. She shows off a variety of nervous laughs and likewise gets around to tears. Everything is carried off with enough animation to make the Pixar people applaud.

What purpose is served by all of this consistently engaging activity? In any one-person show, the actor has to keep the ball rolling by himself/herself -- with, of course, the cooperation of an inventive director. This show is helmed by the debuting John Benjamin Hickey, who's done a fair amount of board-treading himself and understands the challenge. But there's the added need, if a script isn't up to snuff, for the actor single-handedly to add missing ingredients. At least, that's what a viewer often senses is occurring.

It seems as if that's definitely what's occurring here. At best, Bad Dates is a pleasant divertissement about single mothers who regard themselves as painfully devoid of the dating knack. Well, it's also about women who can't buy enough shoes; Haley mentions Imelda Marcos but doesn't bring up Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw, who also craves a man and thinks that $400 shelled out for a few instep doodads and an ankle strap or two is money well spent. Nor, in her ramblings, does Haley ever cite those so-called Joan Crawford fuck-me pumps, although she slips into some. But she does make note of Crawford's Mildred Pierce starrer, which also happens to be about a waitress-turned-successful restaurateur who's trying to raise a daughter and land a fella. (A cynical reviewer might well wonder if Rebeck wrote the play in ignorance of the 1945 film adapted from James M. Cain's novel, then learned about it subsequently inserted a few film-buff references rather than discard her work or alter it significantly.)

Julie White in Bad Dates(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Julie White in Bad Dates
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
There's no denying that Haley's central issue -- raising a teenager as a single mom -- is relevant to a large part of the population, but it may be of riveting interest only to that segment. I'm inclined to recommend the exercise to my friend Sally, who's parenting her own teenager while searching for Mr. Right. But the man in front of me at the theater spent the play's 90-minutes looking at his watch and taking off and putting on his sweater (perhaps Haley's duds-donning compulsion is catching), while another man three rows away dealt with a seemingly tenacious crick in his neck. All of which may indicate that just as Mildred Pierce is considered "a woman's film," Bad Dates might be dubbed "a woman's play."

Throughout it, Haley chats in Rebeck's convincingly naturalistic dialogue about dates she's just about to go on and then, after Francis Aronson's lights have blacked out and bumped up again, reports on how each evening went. Occasionally she trots off the set -- ostensibly to confer with daughter Vera, who's listening to rock and roll behind a closed door down the hall. (Is that Britney Spears bellowing courtesy of sound designer Bruce Ellman? Is it Avril Lavigne?) The three dates about which Haley reports are with (1) a man who discusses his cholesterol and colon, (2) an apparently gay Columbia law professor, and (3) a hot prospect named Lewis who turns out not to be so hot. The phone calls made and received by Haley usually involve brother B.J. or chum Eileen, who's holding down the fort at the restaurant.

Early on, while agonizing over shoes and outfits, Haley confides how she came by her managerial position: Veljko, the Romanian-mafia-connected man running the business where she was waiting tables, was jailed and Haley was discovered to be a "sort of weird restaurant-idiot-savant." Presto-chango, she's earning the kind of salary to afford that boudoir. Later, she realizes that Lewis is a heel at just about the same time she also learns that Veljko is back and riled about the books she's been keeping for the cash-only restaurant. Suddenly, Haley is in the kind of trouble for which Rebeck -- reaching for a way to heighten the monologue's drama -- has laid some groundwork but hardly enough. The complications and coincidences that ensue as Rebeck contrives Haley's disillusioned but hopeful finish will make observers screw up their faces in disbelief.

Currently on the Playwrights Horizons main stage is Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife. Were Haley able to make the same claim as that title, most of her problems would be solved. But Theresa Rebeck's problems with Haley and Bad Dates need a broader kind of re-thinking.