In case you have not been on the romantic hunt lately, you should know, ladies and gentlemen: It's still ugly out there. Or so you must conclude after seeing Bad Dates, the new Madison Repertory Theatre production in which Chicago actress Martie Sanders plays Haley, a 39-ish single mom who is braving the New York dating scene.
At a preview Wednesday night of the one-woman show, Sanders built a marvelous rapport with the audience as she feverishly tried on outfits and shared tales from the front, most of them funny, some of them anguished.
But I was struck by one story in particular, milked by Sanders for maximum horror, about a disastrous first date with a law professor. The man seemed ideal on paper, but it apparently was plain to everyone, except maybe the man himself, that he was, yes, gay.
Why was I struck? Because I have been That Guy.
Well, perhaps not quite. In Haley's telling, her date veered definitively south at the restaurant, when the man began strenuously flirting with their waiter. As for me, when I was dating women, before I came out in my late 20s, I was not comfortable enough in my closeted homosexuality even to flirt with waiters, whatever the circumstances. (Of course, a greater truth of Haley's story is that on any first date, it is deeply gauche to flirt with the waitstaff.)
I'm mortified to look back on that time, not least because regardless of the circumstances, dating can be agonizing. As Sanders makes clear, whatever age we are, going out on a date makes us ask ourselves all the uncertain questions we asked ourselves in high school: What will I wear? What will we talk about? What if I come across as a loser?
Then add to these my special question -- why am I dating women when I think I like men? -- and you've got a recipe for a fun night out.
But hey, no regrets. Well, except the big one: I wish I had started living honestly sooner. People in the closet reflexively lie to everyone, after all, to friends, family members, coworkers and, yes, dates. The lies I told did their damage, and I can't take them back, and that is painful to contemplate.
The good news, of course, is that eventually I did get honest. Of course, when I started seeing men, I discovered that the rules of gay dating are even more arcane and arbitrary than the rules of straight dating. But that's a topic for another play.
Madison Repertory Theatre's Bad Dates opens tonight at The Playhouse in Overture Center and runs through Dec. 23.