By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Two good Dallas actresses are getting their due in a pair of shows obsessed with courtship, marriage and the whole damn thing called love. One play will make you feel good about all that. The other won't, but it does afford its star, Sally Soldo, the sweetest role she's had in a long time.
The feel-good one is Bad Dates, now on as the 10th season opener at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Shannon J. McGrann's bravura performance makes Theresa Rebeck's 90-minute, one-character, one-way conversation feel like a party we're glad we've been invited to.
McGrann plays Haley Walker, a divorced, transplanted Texan in Manhattan, where she's raising a daughter and running a chic restaurant. We find Haley mid-tizzy at the top of the play as she tumbles around her messy bedroom, trying on tight dresses and kicking in and out of dozens of pairs of designer stilettos. She's going on a date, the first of several during the play. As she wrestles into the right outfit, she chatters optimistically about what she wants to happen during the evening out, as we tend to do. For single women Haley's age, hope is the thing with feathers — plus squeeze-y undergarments and killer Jimmy Choos.
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Speaking directly to the audience in the sort of sassy, conspiratorial tone Kathy Griffin has honed to perfection in her stand-up, McGrann, in character, dishes with us on her lousy luck with men. There's the guy who communes with bugs. She met him at a rain-drenched Buddhist charity mixer in the Hamptons. Her mother has set her up on a blind date with a law professor from Columbia, though it's Haley's gay brother he's more likely to hit it off with. Old "colonoscopy guy" was a bore. "The first topic on a first date should not be cholesterol," Haley says. You got that right, sister.
The most promising prospect sounds like the hottie she played tonsil hockey with for two hours out by the George Washington Bridge. When he's a no-show for their second date, we feel her anguish. Shoot, she's already arranged a sleepover for her kid and ordered enough Chinese food for two.
Woven throughout Bad Dates are references to Mildred Pierce (the original with Joan Crawford, not the soporific HBO version) and the movie's parallels to Haley's life of single motherhood, waitressing and brushes with nogoodniks on the wrong side of the law. Rebeck has written scripts for TV cop-and-lawyer shows, so, along with the subtext of film noir, she knows how to sustain just enough tension to make us worry a little for Haley's safety. Is the shoebox under the bed stuffed with stolen cash? Just how does Haley afford a nice New York apartment, $400 mules and private school tuition for her never-seen daughter? (The girl's always in another room down the hall on designer Rodney Dobbs' lavishly realistic set.) And who is the scary guy she has to meet after the mysterious phone call? As Haley gets panicky and the scene goes to blackout, you do a mental cha-CHUNG.
Nothing heavy happens, of course. This is light comedy that depends on its star to make it as weightless as possible. At this, McGrann is an expert. As directed by Circle Theatre's farce specialist Robin Armstrong in her first assignment for CTD, McGrann breezes through the nonstop dialogue with flashes of inspired goofiness and impressive physical comedy. Flopping onto the bed to digress into another story-within-the-story, McGrann's Haley becomes your favorite girlfriend, the one who gets looser and funnier after the second glass of chardonnay. You want to hear what she has to say next because she's your pal and she's smart, funny and in need of love. You want, for her sake, for the next date, maybe with "the bug guy," to be the one that comes with a glass slipper that fits.
A Catered Affair, now running at Theatre Three, is not nearly so much fun. It's a dreary little musical about dreary little people, performed on a set that hurts your eyes with ugliness. Based on a 1955 teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky, which then became a film starring Bette Davis, the musical was created just a few years ago by Harvey Fierstein (book) and John Bucchino (music and lyrics). Think Marty, but with women in aprons singing songs about fishmongers, and you've got the gist of it.
In a Bronx tenement apartment (suggested with painted-on bricks by set designer David Walsh), the extended Hurley family has just suffered the loss of a son in the Korean War. Cab driver Tom, played by Sonny Franks (just off his nice turn as Herbie in Lyric Stage's Gypsy), wants to use the Army settlement check to buy his own taxi medallion. But when daughter Janey (Bailey Lawrence) announces plans to marry her well-off fiancé Ralph (Brandon Halloran) in a no-frills civil ceremony, mom Aggie (Sally Soldo) claims the windfall to throw them a lavish wedding and sit-down reception instead.
A glum play interrupted by tuneless songs about aborted hopes and stifled emotions — well, whose idea of a good time is that? Nobody's happy in A Catered Affair, least of all the gay uncle (played by Christopher Wagley) who's consigned to the fold-out couch like a permanent house-guest. He's resented by everyone until he's conscripted to bring some of his gayness to the planning of the wedding. (This was the Harvey Fierstein character in the Broadway production; here, Wagley has none of Fierstein's comic chops or really much acting ability at all.)
Directed by Theatre Three's founder and artistic director, Jac Alder, the production is marred by technical bloopers, including a major scene change so noisy it drowns out dialogue, plus some egregiously weak casting. One actor playing several small roles looks so stiff and terrified several of us wondered if the real performer had just not shown up and been replaced for opening night by a randomly chosen passerby.
Lawrence, playing the daughter, is too Sandra Dee to pass as a downtrodden 1950s tenement dweller, though she sings well enough. Her best moment has her warbling giddily in a shop as she tries on wedding gowns. (Costumer Michael Robinson, as ever finding new ways to make women look hideous onstage, puts her in one with three tulle doorknobs across her behind.)
As Ralph, young Halloran acts with sincerity but sings just off key enough to make your eyebrows jump involuntarily.
Franks and Soldo, however, give fine, focused performances as the parents, saving A Catered Affair from total disappointment. He's a musical theater star who can carry off an everyman character without turning him into one of The Honeymooners. Soldo, hurting for good roles in recent years, gets a starring part that at last lets her sing and act up a storm. As Aggie, she's part Mama Rose, part Edith Bunker, a long-suffering wife and mother who finally finds her voice and stands up to her husband. Here she is, boys. Here she is, world. The apron's off and the lady's got a lot to sing about.