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Theatre in Review: Play/Date (Fat Baby)

Ben Maters. Photo: Brian T. Scott

The rage for immersive theatre reaches a new extreme with Play/Date. Pay attention, now, because this one has many facets: As the title suggests, the production takes inventory of the (very occasional) joys and (seemingly endless) woes that make up the hunt for romance in Manhattan. This being the 21st century, however, you can begin to experience the play well before you attend. On purchasing your ticket, you can log on to Facebook and Twitter to friend and follow the characters who populate the evening. Presumably, they won't waste your time with pictures of food and cat videos, like your real friends do.

If, like me, you wonder when theatregoing became so difficult -- do I really have to do homework before the show begins? -- you can skip that part and show up at Fat Baby, a three-level bar on Rivington Street where Play/Date is housed. As conceived by Blake McCarty, a variety of dating dramas unfold all over the place. You are free to view them as you will: If you want to skip around, taking in bits and pieces of each brief encounter, fine. If you'd prefer to pick one and see it through before moving on to the next, no worries. I chose the latter approach.

Produced by McCarty and Sharon Counts in association with the technology-savvy theatre company3-Legged Dog, Play/Date poses daunting technical challenges that are pulled off in fine style under the direction of Michael Counts, creative director at 3LD. While the production doesn't feature the video coups de théâtre that are a regular feature of 3LD's work, it can't have been easy to coordinate the staging of nearly a dozen plays that unfold in overlapping fashion, with two or three usually taking place at once. It's a seamless feat involving multiple moving light cues, amplified actors, and projected IM conversations that turn up on the wall behind actors who stare into their smartphones with the rapt attention of the devout. A cucumber-cool stage manager mingles among those in attendance, hugging an iPad to her breast and murmuring cues into a mic.

As for the plays themselves, written by a phalanx of authors, well, that's where this highly digital enterprise starts to seem a little bit like Throwback Thursday. The characters are the usual assortment of users, losers, and career barflies -- collectively, they're enough to make you immediately sign on to Match.com -- and their stories range from sad to sordid to seedy. I feel confident in saying that not one of their mini-dramas packs one single moment of surprise. Still, the dialogue is often crisp, the actors are uniformly excellent, and there's something about the immediacy of the experience that keeps a hold on one's attention. At times, I felt like an extra in the movie of Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Keeping in mind that results may vary, I admit to being rather taken with Little Honesties, written by and featuring Matthew Cleaver as a guy drowning in self-pity yet still willing to flirt with his waiter (Ryan Rickenbach, who, when called upon, plays a nifty guitar). Mother's Milk, by Joe Salvatore, casts Sharon Counts and John Del Vecchio as wary partners on a first date; it also provides an amusing meditation on what to do when your companion for the evening, by way of making conversation, wants to know the name of your favorite Muppet. At First Blush, by McCarty, looks at a second date, as Cleaver and Nick Lewis play a pair tentatively exploring how much honesty the other can bear. Among confessions of broken hearts and car accidents, one of them, taking the risk, admits, "I was in show choir."

The most touching episode I witnessed was Clay McLeod Chapman's Pump and Dump, about a blind date that quickly goes sour when the woman admits that she has a son at home. Penny Middleton and Tarion Taylor play this spiky encounter for all it is worth. Equally arresting is Claire Kiechel's Redux, in which a pair of exes gets together for a drink, airing their bitterness and dissatisfaction. Tim Haber and Lee Anne Mitchell are a fine pair of sparring partners; she can make a confession of love sound like a slap to the face. Woven in and around these playlets are Are You Digging on Me?, by McCarty, with Stevi Incremona and Ben Maters, our waitress and bartender, as a pugnacious pair of lovers, and Voicemails, by Catherine Lacey, with Ilana Warner as an increasingly drunken young lady obsessively leaving messages for the guy who stood her up.

The production benefits from the skill of Ryan O'Gara's lighting, which smoothly directs our attention from one fraught situation to the next, and Marcelo Añez's sound design, which guarantees that we can hear everything even with so much going on at once, including the bar's ambient music. Márion Talán's costumes amount to a smartly chosen collection of casual wear. Phillip Gulley's video design projects a variety of live IM exchanges.

I remain more than a little ambivalent about the entire immersive theatre trend, but Play/Date is a singular experience and is often surprisingly gripping. It's as if you wandered into a bar and were granted access to all the intimated dramas taking place all around you. (At times, you may, if you wish, sit in alarming proximity to these flirting/feuding couples.) Have a drink -- maybe two -- and be happy that, at least for tonight, you're not looking for love in all the wrong places.--David Barbour

(17 July 2014)

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