For a while, it looks like we’re in a regular pub with a regular crowd. Then a phone rings over the speakers, a light shines on a woman at the bar, and everyone goes quiet. She leaves a voicemail for Char, a date she’s expecting. Soft spotlights brighten in other parts of the pub — a couch, a booth in the back, the upstairs railing — and new characters emerge from within the crowd.
Michael Counts’ Play/Date, conceived by Blake McCarty and styled as an “immersive and voyeuristic theatrical experience,” invites the audience to watch and listen in on a couple dozen one-act plays scattered throughout the Lower East Side bar, Fat Baby, each focused on some kind of relationship, from first dates to anniversaries, from hook-ups to breakups.
It may take a few minutes to learn how to watch the show. With up to three plays and one or two side stories happening at the same time, it’s easy to get distracted by the urge to move around too much and try to see everything. Halfway through one story, I realized I hadn’t really taken in anything that was going on, because I was attempting simultaneously to watch two others stories happening nearby. It helps to pick one interaction, stick with it, and tune out whatever else is happening.
That may work, but the show still has its limit. The main problem is a lack of permanence. While some of the stories interact in superficial ways with one another — two women commiserating over a breakup in one play pause to listen to a man singing in another play across the bar — each piece is really isolated from anything else going on. Whatever’s happening for ten or fifteen minutes exists only in that segment of the production, with no follow-up later on. And once the stories end, so do the characters, making it a difficult thing to feel invested in as an audience. This comes in part with having a different playwright for nearly every play (seventeen are credited); the overall production has breadth but, disappointingly, little depth.
There are a couple exceptions to the no-interaction tendency: two bartenders, Caleb and Stevi (Ben Maters and Stevi Incremona, respectively), whose new relationship gets rockier by the drink, served or consumed. One could reason that the real story is about them, with the individual plays just glimpses into the crazy things they see every shift, but it would be a feeble argument. There isn’t the stage time to justify it. With those other characters taking up so much time, the show becomes a production with a cast of supporting roles only.
In fairness, there’s another recurring character: the woman on her phone at the beginning. Stood up by Chad, she leaves increasingly drunk and awkward voicemails for him throughout the show. But her reason for being, besides to facilitate a romping but purposeless end-of-show number, is unclear.
By the end, I was left with the distinctly unsatisfying feeling that I’d just watched a handful of mini sketches that, in themselves, may have been interesting (or not), but contributed at best very little to the full story. One of the last scenes does in fact have an impact on Caleb, who witnesses the messy breakup of a couple of regulars, which in turn affects his storyline with Stevi. But it’s a quick, cursory thing, almost an afterthought. It’s such a brief moment that it feels silly to mention it — as if the audience is so starved for this kind of continuity that the slightest example of it stands out. And again, there are other dialogues going on at the same time, so if you happen not to see that messy breakup, you miss even that tenuous connection.
Admittedly, it is possible to create a show where even separate, seemingly isolated scenes don’t have quite that disjointed feeling. But that requires the development of a theme of real substance to keep the flow going. In this, Play/Date makes an attempt but falls short, relying on a perfunctory connection to tie everything together.
The individual stories themselves are also somewhat hit-or-miss. Most are entertaining, but too many rely on dialogue so outlandish that they lose any sense of realism. Maybe the point is that the wackiest things happen at this bar — something Caleb hints — but we are so pounded by them that they quickly lose the believability that one or two might have gotten away with.
That’s not to say some don’t have their good moments. And there is still something to be said for some of the more bizarre, unrealistic scenes — the one with the man claiming to be living out the plot of The Terminator, or the lonely but sweet guy on a first date with the douchiest doctor ever — which are fun in a guilty pleasure kind of way. The talent of the actors, meanwhile, never faltered in any of the scenes that I watched.
The venue, an actual nightclub in the Lower East Side, is naturally sectioned off into three separate areas: the bar itself, a lowered lounge area in the back, and a mezzanine above the lounge. It’s ideal for a show with concurrent scenes, but still too small for the size of the crowd. Immersive as Play/Date may be, it’s still difficult to ignore the dozens of audience members who, like you, are staring openly and silently in large clumps at a couple of people having a conversation inches away. It’s more than enough to stifle the illusion of reality. A better venue would be big enough to be able to visually tune out the other audience members.
But a new venue won’t fix the core issues with the show. Whatever the setting, the show needs the benefit of greater collaboration between its playwrights, with real thought toward an interconnected story or theme. Otherwise, the individual plays would work better (and possibly very well) as separate online videos. The novelty of weaving around a bar to find one you like isn’t enough to sustain the whole thing.