"By the end of the night we were totally annoyed by each other, and I let him stick his tongue in my mouth anyway." This is but one of many amusing if unsettlingly recognizable observations about the absurdities of dating made by Haley Walker (Martie Sanders), a single mother reentering the singles scene in the Madison Repertory Theatre's production of Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates (running through Dec. 23 at the Overture Center's Playhouse).
A trouper, a survivor, a street-smart single mom who manages an "it" restaurant in New York, Haley brings to mind all sorts of adjectives that end in y: brassy, sassy, scrappy, plucky. Unselfconscious and self-deprecating, Haley is an Everywoman sort - albeit an exceptionally charming Everywoman who can toss off a seemingly endless stream of adroit one-liners.
Having left her ex-husband after he traded her car for three pounds of marijuana, Haley is more than a little reticent to give her heart away again, and her first few suitors don't make a compelling case for love. One discusses his cholesterol level and colonoscopy in detail, while a blind date arranged by her mother turns out to be not only very gay but very mean. Things seem to be looking up when she reconnects with an old crush that makes her feel "the good part of high school...on fire and moody and hopeful" until she discovers he's neglected to mention he lives with his girlfriend.
Then Haley's job - the part of her life where she feels secure and capable - is threatened. She's genuinely terrified, and we see the side of her that isn't able to emotionally detach from the moment and recycle it into a charming anecdote. It is in this moment that the possibility for actual connection presents itself.
While this isn't the most profound or original subject matter, the script is well constructed and has many winning lines. Much of this production's success is due to the superior performance of Martie Sanders (under the direction of Kate Buckley), whom many will remember for her outstanding work in the Rep's 2005 production of Dirty Blonde. A one-person show is a daunting undertaking for an actor, and Sanders is nothing short of captivating. More than just a great comedic actress, she displays vulnerability and a naïve wisdom that leaves room for the audience to walk a bit in Haley's (ill-fitting) shoes.
The set is a lovely rendering of an (unusually large and clean) Manhattan apartment bedroom. Shoeboxes, stacked on and below the stage, illustrate how Haley has embraced the anodyne properties of shopping, emotionally barricading herself with shoes, yet all the while holding out hope that she is really stockpiling possibilities.
From the uniquely horrifying to the merely boring, Bad Dates entertainingly explores the mix of hope and dread that is dating and the search for real connection.