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Photograph by Tim Fuller

Whatever: Despite a glib veneer Carol Halstead's character remembers some painfully 'Bad Dates' in her one-women play.

Shoes Muse

Carol Halstead's one-woman workout, 'Bad Dates,' moves from laughs to insight at SJ Rep

By Marianne Messina

HALEY WALKER (Carol Halstead), the one-woman heroine of San Jose Repertory Theatre's current comedy, Bad Dates, informs us early on that she owns 600 pairs of shoes (in case we missed them lined up across the stage from one side of the proscenium to the other). As Haley talks confidentially to the audience, she lounges across her queen-size bed or dances in front of her mirror or rifles through her clothes rack. But no matter where she is and what she's saying, Haley is changing clothes. Costume designer B Modern had her hands full costuming this one. Off with the tarty leopard print dress, on with the red glitter stretch pants; off with the glitter pants, on with the dun business skirt--and for every new outfit, Haley dons and doffs several pairs of shoes.

It's definitely a girly kind of play, but that didn't stop plenty of men from laughing out loud on opening night. In her friendly Southern lilt, Haley informs the audience that she's getting ready for a date. Then she talks about the restaurant she runs, her divorce, her "one that got away"--in fact, a barrage of the sort of glib chatter one might overhear in a diner and tune out. A lesser performer might be tempted to grasp for heartstrings by overacting. Halstead does not. Her multifaceted Haley moves in like a subtle aroma. So it takes a while to get the full impact, and stage business--clothes flying, music blaring--draws us in more than character at first.

Fortunately, director Timothy Near has an eye for filling stage space in exciting ways. But Haley's other levels start to come through when she gets to her less-favorite memories, pauses, mutters, "Whatever," and we can sense the fragile determination that keeps her together. Uncovering insights one at a time--that Haley wants to be seen in the best light, tends to understate negatives, makes excuses for other people, subordinates her own needs--Theresa Rebeck's script ultimately reverses the importance of character and activity. We're drawn to Haley's character and see the activity as just her way of beating back the loneliness.

Halstead goes from confident business proprietor to giddy girl in puppy love as fluidly as she lets cheery Southern hospitality burst into sarcastic anger. For example, on one date, after a lot of polite listening to her first date yammering on about his cholesterol while complaining about the menu, Haley blurts out, "It's a goddamned French restaurant; of course there's butter in it." Juggling fast-paced monologue with faster-paced stage action while talking around unpredictable audience laughter calls for improv-reactive timing. Without losing tempo, Halstead's delivery nimbly dodged the laughter all but once.

On the humor scale, Bad Dates is like being with an amusing friend. It doesn't bunch up at the end the way many plays do, scrambling to tie up all the pieces. The arc is more even and natural. Rebeck gives us a clever Zen subplot to blunt the sense of contrivance and leaves us with the idea that some of the most ridiculous things often make the most sense.

Bad Dates, a San Jose Repertory Theatre presentation, plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm, Sunday at 2pm (plus noon on May 26 and 7pm on May 23 and June 6) through June 6 at the San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $18 and up. (408.367.7255)

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From the May 19-25, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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