Monday, February 5, 2018

Bad Dates and Una: Bad Dates and Worse Ones

Haneefah Wood stars in Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates at the Huntington Theatre Company. (Photo: T. Charles Ericson)

Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates was a hit for the Huntington Theatre in 2003, so the company has elected to resurrect it this season on its mainstage, which means that it programmed two one-woman shows back to back. (Mala closed last week in its South End space.) Bad Dates is by far the superior play – and the superior performance, by the bright-eyed, charismatic L.A. actress Haneefah Wood. It’s enjoyable if not memorable entertainment. I knew I’d seen Julie White in the show fifteen years ago but couldn’t recall a thing about it except the premise – a middle-aged single woman tells the audience about a succession of eagerly anticipated evenings with men that, one after the other, go wrong. The play hails from the Sex and the City era and the character shares with that series’ narrator-protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, an obsession with expensive footwear and a frankness about life in Manhattan for an attractive thirtysomething with a career who’s trying to find the right man – though in this cases Haley Walker, who manages a relatively high-end restaurant for some shady people, is also raising a teenage daughter on her own.

Rebeck’s writing has an appealing glib wittiness. She started off in television, and Bad Dates, one of her early plays, sounds a lot like TV – like comic monologues strung together. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but its only structure comes from the subject matter on the one hand and on the other a last-minute melodramatic twist involving the restaurant, which is so sparsely set up at the beginning that it feels like an intrusion, not least because it abruptly changes the tone for what turn out to be purely plot reasons. Once Rebeck gets Haley where she wants her to secure a potentially happy ending to her romantic quest, the serious material recedes clumsily into the background in time for the curtain. A later Rebeck play like Seminar is so skillfully crafted by comparison that Bad Dates feels like it’s much older than a decade and a half.

Wood’s performance (under Jessica Stone’s direction) is quite entertaining. She seems a little at sea with the straight sections, but that’s less her fault than Rebeck’s. She has strong timing, she knows how to get her laughs, and only at a few junctures does she seem to be milking them by holding onto a moment too long. The way the play is written, Haley spends much of her time changing outfits, either trying out different ensembles for her dates or undressing after getting home from one, and Wood is both physically lively enough and enough of a clotheshorse to make the routine work for the whole hour and a half. Thanks to Sarah Laux’s costume designs, we trust Haley from the outset because she has a good eye for which pieces seem like they should go together but don’t and which pieces make her look great – though I have to admit I wasn’t as wild about those shoes. Alexander Dodge designed the set, which is a great boon for both Stone and Wood; it goes far toward keeping the evening fluid and the stage picture varied. 

Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn in Una.

Una is a film version of the David Harrower play Blackbird, about a young woman who tracks down and confronts the man who had a sexual relationship with her fifteen years earlier, when she was a young adolescent and he was a neighbor and a friend of her father’s. They made a failed attempt at running away together and he wound up serving four years in prison. (In the play she was twelve and he was forty; in the movie she was thirteen and he was closer to thirty.) The film is directed by Benedict Andrews, a London stage director known for his productions of Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster (which was dreadful) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell (which I haven’t seen). It’s not a good movie but the two actors, Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, are mesmerizing, and they keep the relationship between Una and Ray complex and unresolvable.

Mara – who is also excellent in the unreleased Jim Sheridan picture The Secret Scripture, where she plays Vanessa Redgrave’s character in World War II flashbacks – manages to mix Una’s anger at Ray with her lingering desire for him; the result is a heady, eroticized bitterness. Ray took Una away from her home, checked into a motel room and then went out for a walk and a drink to clear his head, realizing the weight of what he’d just done. But he stayed away long enough for Una to assume he’d abandoned her and cause her to panic, and she went out looking for him; that’s how they wound up getting caught. When she seeks him out at his workplace all these years later and realizes that he didn’t just leave her to her own devices in the motel room, Mara’s Una is paralyzed with horror at her mistake, and we realize that it was that detail more than any other that has haunted her and made it impossible for her to move on with her life, whereas he has – he’s now married. When, drawn back into their wrecked past, they undress in a darkened locker room and start to make love and then he pulls away, she asks him, “Am I too old?,” and Mara’s reading of the line has so many undercurrents of disgust and self-disgust, shattered hope and resignation, that it almost makes you gasp. Mara’s the spookiest actress of her generation; you can never work out how in hell she gets her effects. And Mendelsohn is one of those rare actors who truly deserves to be called a chameleon, even though his looks are so distinctive you wouldn’t imagine he could bury himself under the skin of so many different kinds of characters. If you watch him as Ray (the film is available on Netflix) and then check him out as King George VI in Darkest Hour, still in theatres, you can’t believe you’re watching the same actor. (Plus his performance as the king is strikingly different from Colin Firth’s in the same role in The King’s Speech.)

Harrower, who wrote his own screenplay for Una, has added flashbacks with Ruby Stokes as young Una and Tara Fitzgerald as her mother, and though Stokes is very good and a convincing visual match with Mara, these scenes are distracting – we want to get back to the present-day characters. They’re also awkwardly edited in. Harrower has also added a subplot involving a young man who works under Ray (well played by the gifted Riz Ahmed) that doesn’t work, though it leads the narrative to an intriguingly different conclusion from the one in the play. But even when he fumbles, you have to admire Harrower’s decision to rethink the material for the screen; Una certainly doesn’t feel like a filmed stage play. Its real raison d’ĂȘtre, though, is the pairing of the two stars. What a pity the movie barely got released.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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