The first date in Actors’ Playhouse’s First Date is neither a hellish mismatch nor a heavenly connection. It’s rather like most of them—generic questions, nervous laughter, the occasional foot-in-mouth blunder—except for the irrepressible song and dance that erupt from the voices in the characters’ heads.
In this musical comedy, which closed just last year on Broadway, the laughs are easy but effective. Aaron (Clay Cartland) and Casey (Erica Lustig) meet in a bar-restaurant — an art deco café with a looming expressionist skyline, chicly designed by Tim Bennett. They’ve been set up the old-fashioned way, by a mutual friend who hopes these opposites will attract. Aaron is a square geek who works in finance, the nice guy who always finishes last; Casey is a provocateur and “artist” who usually finishes in the sheets of a random bad boy.
There’s nothing fresh or even unexpected about either of these archetypes. And feminists will wince at the show’s tortured-male viewpoint, with its emotionally numb, commitment-phobic woman and its faultless guy whose only hang-up is being left at the altar a year earlier by an even more commitment-phobic woman. It’s no surprise the show’s book, music, and lyrics were written by three dudes.
Yet we root for them to succeed, because the performances of Cartland and Lustig are vividly realized. They frequently inject pathos and flawless timing into these familiar roles, so that while the characterizations might seem drawn from cardboard, the actors manage to bring rich dimension.
The same can be said for the supporting parts played by the show’s dynamic ensemble, all of whom act as manifestations of the of the lead characters’ anxieties, fears, and memories. Each actor plays multiple parts, the most prominent being Conor Walton as Casey’s flamboyant gay friend and “bailout,” should the date go awry; Jessica Booth as Aaron’s ex-girlfriend; Nick Duckart as Aaron’s friend and virtual wingman; Laura Hodos as Casey’s practical sister; and Roland Rusinek as the restaurant’s sardonic waiter. Many of these parts are cringingly broad, but they’re played with enough sincerity and gusto that we laugh, perhaps, over our better judgment.
There is no earthly reason this one-act musical needs to be an hour and 40 minutes; there’s at least 20 minutes worth of superficial padding to reach its protracted conclusion. But the entire venture is immaculately polished, from David Arisco’s direction to Manny Schvartzman’s musical direction. He handles the show’s jukebox of genres, from rock and folk to rap and Broadway, with seasoned aplomb.
But there is perhaps no better compliment than the acknowledgement that, for the first time in years on the Playhouse’s main stage, we can actually hear every note and just about every song lyric. The company finally installed a new digital soundboard. Whether the characters in First Date will share a life together is uncertain, but Actors’ Playhouse’s future now sounds sharper than ever.
First Date runs through April 12 at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Tickets cost $37-$59, or $15 for student rush tickets. Call 305-444-9293 or visit actorsplayhouse.org.
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