By Richard Ades
Remember the big restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally? I thought of it after attending Thursday’s preview performance of The Playdaters.
Specifically, I thought of the comment a stranger makes to her waiter after witnessing Sally’s simulated orgasm: “I’ll have what she’s having.” In my case, the line would have been “I’ll have what they’re having.”
It wasn’t so strange that the MadLab viewers laughed early and often. That’s not unusual for a first-night audience, often made up of friends of the cast who are eager to be supportive.
What set these folks apart was that they started laughing before the play even began. When the pre-curtain soundtrack included a naughty Garfunkel and Oates song about hand jobs, they burst into prolonged hysterics. They then remained in stitches for much of the play’s hour-long running time, and I suspect most of them stayed to laugh all over again when MadLab presented a second performance with a juggled cast.
Written by Neil Haven, The Playdaters is about a pair of roommates who dare each other to set up dates with strangers, then misbehave in bizarre ways when they meet. The roommates generally are portrayed by men, but MadLab is trying an interesting experiment by offering two versions: On Fridays, men play the lead roles while women play their dates; on Saturdays, the genders are switched.
At Thursday’s preview, both versions were staged in succession. Since the female version was presented first (as determined by a coin toss), that’s the one I saw.
OK, the gender switch is a cute idea, but what about the play itself? Is it as hilarious as those first-nighters thought it was? Well, not in its entirety, but director Jim Azelvandre and his cast do deliver lots of funny moments.
In the women-led version, most of them belong to Erma, who’s played by Audrey Rush with the kind of roly-poly physicality that will remind many of Melissa McCarthy. Foul-mouthed and mischievous, Erma throws herself into such first-date shenanigans as pretending to be German or drinking half a bottle of whiskey on the sly.
As Stephanie, Erma’s relatively conservative roommate, MaryBeth Griffith is far more subdued. That’s natural, but Griffith probably could land a few more laughs of her own if she played up the character’s strait-laced tendencies.
As for the men, Chad Hewitt gives a similarly low-key performance as Stephanie’s near-perfect date, but Josh Kessler finds droll humor in the men (and one woman) who are unlucky enough to end up on prank dates with Erma.
It should be noted that The Playdaters is not simply the tale of two fun-loving gagsters. Haven also throws a couple of complications into the mix.
The first concerns the relationship between the roommates, which seems to be in flux. Erma loves it and wants it to stay the same forever, and she reacts with jealousy when it becomes clear that Stephanie wants to progress from gag dates to the real thing. If you see the show’s male version, you’ll probably be reminded of movie bromances such as Superbad or 22 Jump Street.
The second complication—and the one that makes things a bit too messy for my taste—involves the characters’ tendency to break through the “fourth wall.” Erma and Stephanie constantly stop the action in order to explain things to the audience or to bicker about how the plot is proceeding. Toward the end, Erma goes so far as to accuse Stephanie of getting herself caught up in a typical romantic comedy.
Maybe Haven felt his play needed something to distinguish itself from the average rom-com, bromance or bramance. Maybe that’s why he added all the fourth-wall busting and winking self-awareness.
If you’re like me and have a low tolerance for this kind of gimmicky, you’ll wish he hadn’t imposed it on what is otherwise an agreeable comedy. But if you’re like that preview audience, you won’t mind at all.
The Playdaters continues through Sept. 13 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.