These days, a play called “Bad Dates” sounds like the kind of story that rings the alarm bell on horrendous male misbehavior. But Theresa Rebeck’s play isn’t a #MeToo exposé or cautionary tale. Rather, it’s a crowd-pleasing, one-woman comedy with a scrappy, magnetic narrator who gets to try on beautiful clothes and fabulous shoes. Yet when Rebeck set out to write the play, she found the single-character format to be so challenging, she doubts she’ll ever try her hand at it again.
“It took me longer to write that play, almost four years, than any play I’ve written. It is a form that is full of traps,” Rebeck says over the phone from Washington, D.C., where she’s directing her contemporary adaptation of William Congreve’s “The Way of the World” at the Folger Theatre. “Sometimes I have students come talk to me about writing one-person plays, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, good luck.’ ”
“Bad Dates,” which begins performances at the Huntington Theatre Company on Friday, centers on Haley Walker, a single mom with a teenage daughter. In just a few years, she’s gone from a struggling waitress rebuilding her life after a broken marriage to a successful career running what’s become one of New York’s buzziest restaurants. Now she’s looking for companionship.
Despite Rebeck’s initial struggles with the genre, “Bad Dates” has been enthusiastically embraced by audiences. After premiering at Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway, starring Julie White, it transferred to the Huntington in 2004 and became one of the most popular shows in the theater’s history. The play itself was one of the most produced plays at regional theaters around the country in 2005-06. Now, it’s returning to the Huntington 15 years after its world premiere.
When the Huntington began considering a remount of “Bad Dates,” the theater’s artistic staff approached Jessica Stone, who had directed comedies including Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and “Ripcord” at the Huntington. Initially, she was a bit skeptical, thinking “Is it too soon?”
But she agreed it could resonate if they could find a way to shake it up, and she quickly thought of Haneefah Wood to play Haley, having directed her as Cassandra, the housekeeper with a penchant for prophesies, in “Vanya and Sonia.” “You need someone who’s great with language. You need someone who is smart dramaturgically. But you really need an entertainer who will be fun to spend an evening with, and Haneefah is just so charismatic,” Stone says, on a break from rehearsal.
Stone also liked the idea of casting a woman of color, and Wood agrees that “being a black woman puts a little bit of a different spin on it. If I talk about the police in one of the monologues, it might have a different turn for me than it would for someone else who was white. But we can also see our commonalities.”
As the play unfolds, Haley sits in the privacy of her bedroom and recounts the hilarious and horrible particulars of her dating misadventures with various men, from the clueless to the condescending. She has a gay brother, whom she gabs with on the phone and relies on for dating advice, and she consults her (unseen) daughter for fashion do’s-and-dont’s.
“She’s put her romantic life on hold for a long time so that she can take care of herself and her daughter,” Wood says. “But she’s now realizing she wants this other part of her life to start blooming.”
Haley also has a shoe obsession. “It’s not like some crazy Imelda Marcos fetish, although I admit it might look like that,” she deadpans in the play. In fact, Haley owns some 600 pairs. Her other issues? A shoebox full of cash that’s stashed under her bed and the restaurant’s ties to the Romanian Mafia.
While the dating misadventures take center stage, Rebeck says the play is ultimately about “survival of the heart and the yearning for connection — as a holy thing. It’s about the banishment of bitterness. It’s about a person who’s had a lot of trouble in her life but will not succumb to depression or bitterness or disappointment — even though all of those things enter her world.”
Like her character, Wood can feel her talents being stretched. She must change in and out of dresses, shoes, and outfits while reciting an endless stream of snappy monologues.
Having spent the past few years performing recurring roles on television series like “Baskets,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Zoe Ever After,” Wood leapt at the chance to return to the stage for the first time since 2015’s “Vanya and Sonia.” “It’s a lot of pressure, but I felt like I couldn’t turn it down. It felt like something that was going to be life-changing in a way. It’s challenging me as an actor. It’s challenging me as a human being. It’s making me have to face a whole bunch of [expletive] that sometimes you don’t want to face. And it’s been kicking my butt.”
Stone acknowledges that the mechanics and technical details of performing comedy are pushing both director and actress to be on-point at all times. “It’s tedious to watch a comedic rehearsal. Because it is like math,” she says. “You hear those stories of Lucille Ball doing [the iconic ‘I Love Lucy’ bits] ‘Vitameatavegamin’ or packaging the candy on the assembly line. She rehearsed it within an inch of its life. So it’s really hard. You have to land the joke, but still tell the truth. That’s tricky.”
Indeed, Rebeck feels that theaters aren’t doing enough comedies these days, because of how difficult they can be to pull off. But Stone feels the healing balm of comedies like “Bad Dates” is exactly what audiences need in the current political and cultural moment.
“These are exhausting times right now,” says Stone. “So I think it’s important for theater to remind us of what’s funny and beautiful and joyous about the human condition, to be proud of somebody for coming to terms with being a bit of a mess and then growing up. It’s incredibly important to feel affection for one another. Otherwise we can feel exhausted and hopeless. We want to spend time with a character that we love, and when we get to do that, it’s something to treasure.”
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, Jan. 26-Feb. 25. At Huntington Avenue Theatre. Tickets: From $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.