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At first glance, Fat Baby looks like any other Lower East Side bar on a weeknight. A woman waits for someone while texting impatiently. A guy on a stool engages his date and the bartender in a movie-trivia conversation. A reedy twink in Nantucket Reds flirts confidently with an equally thin young fellow in a plaid shirt. Nearby a couple meets awkwardly in person for the first time.
But these single-and-looking types aren’t real-life barflies. They’re dramatis personae in Play/Date, a new theater production opening July 16 and running four nights a week at this Rivington Street lounge. Visitors to Fat Baby are surrounded by 21 short plays authored by 17 different playwrights. Each mini drama concerns dating and involves no more than three characters.
Spectators order drinks, circulate, and watch whatever and whoever theylike. Guy Code applies: no interfering with someone else’s date. Audience participation is discouraged — at least, with performers in the middle of a scene. You’re free to strike up a conversation with fellow voyeurs, however. And some performers report being hit on after the show, when a DJ mixes until late, and art blurs with life.
Playwright Blake McCarty found the inspiration and concept for Play/Date after a post-soirée debriefing with his roommate over a bottle of wine. Both friends had committed themselves to a “year of yes”: dating anyone online who asked, provided it wouldn’t put them at risk. Their experiences generated a trove of horror stories, prompting the 28-year-old McCarty to wonder what it would look like to stage a selection of these dates simultaneously. (His own Play/Date script condenses his first five connections.)
With co-producer Sharon Counts, McCarty solicited playwrights — including Chad Beckim (And Miles to Go), Clay McLeod Chapman (The Pumpkin Pie Show), and Greg Kotis (Urinetown) — for new scripts that would span a romantic range. The team took care to include characters of several ages (most are in their 20s and 30s) and statuses: queer, straight, married, divorced. “Dating is everybody in New York,” says Michael Counts, the show’s director and a creative producer at 3LD, the project’s producing partner.
Then they found a venue. “Setting Play/Date in an operating bar really highlights for me, as a New Yorker, the voyeuristic sense of being out and wanting to listen to the conversation that’s happening at the table next to you,” McCarty says. “In general, that is a faux pas, but in this setting you are encouraged to sit and stare and listen in on very private conversations.”
Not all of the conversations are spoken. In 2014, dating is a convergence of online and in-person profiles, a reality the production emphasizes with screens small and large. At Fat Baby, overhead video reveals what characters are seeing and writing on their phones as they trawl for mates and hookups on Grindr, Tinder, and OKCupid.
Each of the 18 actors also maintains a digital footprint for one of his or her characters, sometimes across multiple social-media platforms. When an audience member purchases a ticket, the confirmation email extends an invitation to friend or follow those characters online. When they walk into the bar, spectators might recognize a few faces — and know something about their proclivities.
Play/Date isn’t the first New York theater event devised as a nightlife immersion. Predecessors include Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, which opened in 1985 and ran for 22 years; “guests” attended nuptials and a full reception, interacting with the fictional Italian-American host families. More recently, the 2011 commercial spectacle Sleep No More invited visitors to trail players around a lavish warehouse installation, blending imagery from Macbeth with cocktails and live music. But by providing additional ways to encounter the characters, Play/Date‘s creators hope to offer visitors a multitiered, dramatic experience. “So much ‘immersive theater’ emphasizes physical spectacle rather than spoken dialogue or connection between characters,” McCarty says, “but I think for us that is a key element.”
Ultimately audiences choose their own adventure. “Some of them are going to sit in one spot for the whole show and see what they see from that vantage point,” he acknowledges. “Other people are going to move around a lot. Some are going to watch two plays and then go and talk about the date they had last night with the friend they’re there with. And all of those are appropriate ways to experience the show.”
As Sharon Counts points out, all the choices mirror the consumerism of modern dating itself. “You decide how far to go,” she says, “and whether or not to move on.”