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Venus Attacks 

A woman kvetches about predictable male failings in the lumpy Bad Dates.

Judith Hawking wrestles with midlife angst in this - one-woman turn.
  • Judith Hawking wrestles with midlife angst in this one-woman turn.
"A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." That quip was uttered by proto-feminist Gloria Steinem around 1970 -- 30 years before she swam over and hopped on her own velocipede in the form of hubby David Bale. Far from giving the lie to her earlier proclamation of feisty independence, Steinem's matrimony at age 66 just demonstrated the biological and psychological imperative of coupling. As Cole Porter once observed, "Even educated fleas do it."

Of course, fleas probably stand a better chance of getting hooked up than your average SWOT (Single Woman Over Thirty). At least that's the premise of Bad Dates, the one-woman chick-alogue by Theresa Rebeck now at the Play House. Written with the snap, pacing, and depth of a mid-ranked TV sitcom, the play yammers about the feminine lust for shoes and the unsatisfying companionship of massively flawed males. But it hobbles to an uncertain finish when it veers off into a strangely illogical crime story followed by a cozy resolution.

Haley is an ex-waitress from Texas who, after a divorce in her late thirties, has migrated to New York City, where she's now the manager of an über-trendy restaurant owned by an ever-shifting coterie of Romanian gangsters. Now that her daughter Vera is a semi-self-sufficient 12-year-old, Haley is ready to dive back into the dating pool in search of stimulating conversation and maybe some hot sex. In a series of scenes that hopscotch over her unseen assignations, Haley dresses and disrobes with dexterous modesty as she agonizes over expensive shoe choices (Jimmy Choo or Chanel?) and shares her anticipations and miseries.

Of course, the difficulty of dating and successfully mating for females entering early middle age is nothing new. Back in the 1980s (before terrorism became a fact of life in this country), a Yale survey claimed that thirtysomething women had a greater chance of being killed by terrorists than they did of getting married. That study prompted a massive run on Häagen-Dazs Cookie Dough ice cream -- a feeling Haley understands full well as she encounters a cholesterol-obsessed gentleman, who regales her over dinner with the details of his colonoscopy. After that, her mother sends Haley off on a blind date with a handsome Columbia law professor who is irretrievably gay.

Playwright Rebeck generates a few genuine laughs as Haley thrashes about in her clothes-strewn bedroom and relates her pride in doing her job so well, saying, "I'm apparently a restaurant idiot savant." Rebeck also draws a clever analogy between Haley's life and that of Mildred Pierce in the Joan Crawford movie of the same name. In the best sequence, Haley finally decides to call a guy named Louis, whom she knew years before, and they hit it off, capping one evening with an extended ride around the city and a long make-out session. But her climactic, carefully planned rendezvous at her candlelit flat goes devastatingly awry, and Haley's pain at that moment is all too real.

Unfortunately, some of the scenes in Dates tend to ramble, and Rebeck goes to the well for the same punch line too often. While recapping the first date, Haley cringingly but repeatedly remembers the man's goodnight-kiss-with-tongue -- funny the first time, but not so amusing the next four. Also, Haley's daughter and gay brother are invisible, both literally and dramatically, neither relative having any appreciable impact on our heroine's life. But the most ill-fitting plot contrivance happens in the last third of the 90-minute one-act, when Haley's felonious behavior is revealed in a credibility-challenged cascade of events that take her to a police station and then magically back home, all safe, sound, and unarrested.

In the demanding role of Haley, Judith Hawking turns in a solid if not stunning performance. By starting the show at a feverish level of intensity, she doesn't allow the audience to find her character on its own, since she's so busy stuffing Haley's quirks and mannerisms down our throats. But she soon hits a steady stride and is truly affecting when the affair with Louis crumbles. Director Leigh Silverman paces the show well, but allows some stage business to careen off the tracks. When Haley is dining with the gay man at her own restaurant, she tries to signal her co-worker Eileen with a prolonged display of childish mugging that would seem over-the-top at a gurning competition.

If only the playwright had maintained the cynical edge of Cynthia Heimel (author of If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?) or Lily Tomlin, who once said, "If love is the answer, could you rephrase the question?" As Gloria Steinem would probably admit, gals have some dependency issues when it comes to men. But a whole play devoted to a woman beating herself up over her inability to attract even a marginally acceptable fellow is kind of depressing, all by itself.

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