Chicks and Dicks

Filing out of the Copaken Stage last week, listening to the condo class dish about Bad Dates, the debut show of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s new season, I found myself wondering: What’s wrong with “slight”?

It’s how I like my precipitation, my ballerinas and my chances of death. Sometimes, it’s even how I like my shows — especially singles-on-the-town comedies, which is how Bad Dates bills itself. Working my way out of that crowd, though, the “slight”s I kept hearing seemed dismissive, especially given that each was tempered by a weak “but”: “slight but fun,” one husband declared. “Slight, but it had some laughs,” another offered.

I’m heartened to discover that some Rep die-hards prefer shows more substantive than they’ve been getting. And I’m amused that they couch their complaints in such politeness. (I anticipate an escalation following this December’s A John Denver Holiday Concert: “Godawful but not entirely an insult to the idea of Kansas City as a regional center of the arts.”)

Problem is, Bad Dates is funny, affecting and, in its breezy way, important. It’s slight like a crescent moon: just a sliver’s worth of glow, but if you look closely, you can make out all the substance of the full.

Here that substance is the life of Haley Walker, a waitress and single mother trying, after long, lonely years, to cram romance into a life already straining at its staves. In three long scenes, Haley — played by with tireless invention by Rebecca Dines — dishes and dresses as she preps herself for imminent dates. Sometimes she takes a phone call or hollers at her teenage daughter (characterized by nothing more than a closed door and occasional blasts of Avril Lavigne), but mostly it’s just her and us. That’s enough because Dines is a formidable comic talent, able to move us: When Haley gushes about a recent flirtatious exchange, telling us how she seized some sharp little thing a man said and flung it back at him even sharper, her excitement fired in me each feeling as she described it.

She bustles about her too-huge (but wonderfully designed) New York apartment, often engaged in naturalistic business amped up for comic effect. Theresa Rebeck’s script affects a casual air, letting Haley carry on about shoes but then interrupt herself and carry on about something else entirely. As the dates and details accumulate and we relish Dines’ comic encounters with “The Bug Man” or “A Wretched Companion,” this seemingly artless chatter coheres into something bigger — something concerning the great dilemmas of the age. What unkillable hope inspires someone like Haley, a woman savvy enough to have freed herself from the kind of bad marriage her parents might have endured, to still believe in — hell, feel entitled to — the promise of eventual love, romance and happiness?

In recent decades, genres such as Westerns or science fiction have regained some reputability. Even if the stories follow formula, devotees argue, the themes enrich us, as all art should. When will the same respect elevate “chick lit,” a genre concerned with the social complexities surrounding the propagation of the species? Bad Dates is a finely constructed contemplation sugared up as girl talk. With the kind of gusto and intelligence on display here, how could such material be slight?

How come a play like David Mamet’s American Buffalo, a formalist’s dance of dazzling profanity, idiot repetition and go-nowhere action, is considered serious, whereas Bad Dates isn’t? We could just file this story about a coin heist planned by the dim confederates of a junk-shop owner as “dick lit” and be done with it.

Still, as wankery goes, Mamet’s is top-shelf, especially during the second half of the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s revival. For much of the first half, Mamet’s script feels like a superior exercise, a killer riff without a song to top it, but the desperate anxiety that Kansas City newcomer Forrest Attaway displays as the hyperactive bruiser Teach wrings real life from the material. Teach stomps about the junk-shop basement, all coiled threat and spat-out lines. He spews nonsense by the page, but Attaway, through masculine force and tough-guy charm, reveals how a jackass like this can pass himself off as smart and capable — who would dare question him? Motion plays an important role here. Well-directed by Bob Paisley, Attaway rarely stops moving, his hands an excitable blur. When things finally turn violent, Teach seems relieved — at last, all that energy is doing something.

The language snaps, the pace is a gallop, and the second- (and third-) banana performances feel nicely rounded. The set is handsomely musty, no tough accomplishment, considering that the MET is set up in an old garage. Which made me realize something: There’s been a hole in Kansas City theater exactly the shape and size of that garage and the MET.

Categories: A&E, Stage