I had my doubts. I was going to a show called Bad Dates, written while Sex in the City was hot, by a New York playwright who made her living in television: a monologue about romantic misadventures by a woman surrounded by her several hundred pairs of shoes. When I could be at home witnessing the meaningful drama of the NCAA basketball tournaments (M and W.)
But what could have been trendy triviality -- and judging from some reviews online, this has been played that way -- became something different in the Redwood Curtain production at the Arcata Playhouse, because actor Tinamarie Ivey created a dimensional character you come to care about, and director Dan Stone found and told a compelling story.
That's not to say that Theresa Rebeck's script is lacking. In fact, part of this triumph is finding and using the potential that's in it.
From the first moment -- even in the preview I saw -- Tinamarie Ivey instilled complete confidence and belief, partly because she was totally committed to inhabiting this character. Her honesty supported the character's vulnerability, her ease on the stage nurtured credibility, and her physical and vocal skills suggested the shades of this character, from irony, anxiety and denial to pride and bravery.
The character she plays is Haley, who came to New York City from Texas. Divorced, she's old enough to have a 13-year-old daughter, and has become successful as the manager of a dubious but trendy restaurant, but she's starting to look for romance again.
Ivey doesn't do an obvious Texas accent (although she can mimic one to hilarious effect with just one word: "law"). But she does have the undertones, and especially the occasional deep, throaty resonance (she kept reminding me vocally of Mary Kay Place of The Big Chill and Big Love fame, although Place is from Oklahoma). This propels the raucous humor.
Though we see only Haley, and never leave her apartment, there's a story threaded through her accounts of dates she remembers, has just been on, or is just about to begin. It eventually involves a visit to a police station (which is all just like we see on TV cop shows, she assures us -- kind of an in-joke since Rebeck was a writer and co-producer for NYPD Blue and Law and Order: Criminal Intent). In fact, if this story had been a TV show, the twist at the end would have been predictable, but as a play it works quite well on several levels.
I don't want to give away too much, but there is a startling moment towards the end of such raw emotion that our presence as an audience feels intrusive, and the convention we've accepted -- that this woman is simultaneously in her living room and addressing us as an audience -- suddenly seems on the verge of shattering. The whole play could have fallen apart here, but it doesn't, and this directorial gamble pays off because Ivey is in complete control of the stage.
At a certain point, Haley apologizes for male-bashing. Frankly, that's the tone I had more or less expected but didn't really hear, so the apology came as a surprise. I expect that men have similar dating stories anyway, including being absurdly influenced by friends and an old movie. Even though Dan Stone (as scenic, lighting and sound designer as well as director) made very good use of the limited possibilities at the Playhouse, this is an intimate theatrical experience that such an intimate space affords. I doubt that it could work so well without that intimacy.
This exceptional show plays two more weekends.
Coming Up: Ferndale Repertory Theatre opens The Secret Garden on Thursday, April 2. This 1991 musical is probably the best known of the many adaptations and extensions of the 1911 children's novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who also wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy. With book by playwright Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother), and staged around the time of Sondheim's Into the Woods, this musical originally dealt with complex themes often inhabiting children's stories, and even Burnett's novel was said to be influenced by Theosophical ideas.
But basically there's Lucy Simon's music, the beguiling if repeated story of a displaced orphan (which in this case somewhat mirrors Burnett's own life) confronting sinister and colorful figures, and the perennially enchanting image of the secret garden (or wardrobe, looking-glass, Pepperland...)
The Ferndale Rep production appears very promising, with young Brianna Schatz as the heroine, Brad Curtis as the aptly named Alexander Craven, and a cast of supporting players that mixes skilled local veterans with fresh faces and voices. The production team is also impressive: The Rep's Executive Director Ginger Gene directs, with musical direction by Dianne Zuleger and choreography by Linda Maxwell.
In their press release, Brad Curtis suggests the musical's themes will resonate emotionally in these troubled times, and Ginger Gene affirms that there "are layers of meaning for audience members of all ages. Ultimately, this play is about courage and the willingness to search for the magic in life and the joy that awaits all who open their hearts."