Last weekend the Washington Post ran a story about perpetual singles—those who never, ever find “the one.” It focused more on women than on men, which is unsurprising in a society where Newsweek once famously (and erroneously) reported that a woman over 40 had a greater chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married.
But what about the girl who chooses the terrorist—or at least a suspected killer—as her soul mate? What could possibly drive her to seek refuge in the arms of a man who may well have offed his previous wives? Jon Steinhagen’s new play, Dating Walter Dante, takes that Jerry Springer-esque scenario and strains it through the Drew Peterson case, raising tantalizing questions. But Steinhagen fails to flesh out the woman at the center of his story and so never provides sufficient insight into the pressures she faces—let alone those facing people widely suspected of murder.
In two other recently produced plays, Aces and Blizzard ’67, the Chicago-based Steinhagen showed serious chops as a chronicler of male bonding while demonstrating a gift for ensemble scenes rife with lacerating banter. This time around he’s given us a story that centers on a woman—divorced, childless Laura—and unfolds largely through two-character scenes that take on a rather monochromatic energy in Cody Estle’s staging for Raven Theatre.
The black, white, and gray palettes of Jacob Watson’s set and Frances Maggio’s costumes reflect not only the uncertainty surrounding Walter Dante’s guilt but the stultifying mundanity of the other characters’ daily routines. That colorlessness is upended, though, when Laura meets Walter, whose first wife drowned in the family pool and whose second has been missing for a year. We don’t see their initial meeting; we only hear about it from Laura, who assures us at the outset that we’re about to see a love story.
Her friends, meanwhile, insist that it’s a drama. Or maybe a comedy. Or a dramedy. The spectral presence of Walter’s first wife, Ellen, asserts that it’s a ghost tale. And of course the investigating cop is just as sure that what we’re watching is a detective story.
Truth is, it’s a bit of all those things, but not enough of any of them. Steinhagen wrings some laughs out of the Bickersonian relationship between Laura’s best friend, Suzanne (a deliberately grating Brigitte Ditmars), and her milquetoast husband, Harper (a suitably hapless Michael Boone), who is literally tied up in apron strings the first time we see him. A road trip Suzanne and Harper go on in pursuit of Laura and Walter provides both an amusing occasion for arguing over the correct lyrics to “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and a framework for Steinhagen’s larger questions about romantic urges: do we fall off the wall and into love, or do we get taken down and, well, passed around?
Yet Steinhagen doesn’t provide specifics about Laura. What happened to her between the exit of her ex and the entrance of Walter? What friends or family does she have other than Suzanne and Harper? What does she do for a living? For all the beguiling strains of vulnerability Kristin Collins finds in her, Laura remains a standard-issue unhappy singleton who’s interesting only because of her unorthodox choice of a partner. (Indeed, one of the most potentially explosive bits of information about her—a suggestion that she’s suspected in some foul play of her own—comes out in a throwaway line.) And for all that Jason Huysman taps a smoldering resentment as Walter, particularly in his scenes with Antoine Pierre Whitfield’s detective, his motivations remain out of reach.
Laura’s emotional range begins and ends with her declaration, “I just want to go with my feelings.” The heart wants what it wants, as Woody Allen noted. I would’ve liked to know more about why Laura’s heart wanted such a potentially dangerous liaison. And what about Ellen, the first wife? Even if Walter didn’t kill her, was she happy with him? Or was her poolside drinking on the day she died an expression of boredom and dissatisfaction? Was it his fault?
By utilizing direct address throughout the 85-minute play, Steinhagen slyly suggests that our own collective rubbernecking plays a role in sensationalizing alleged crimes. But by setting up questions in place of fully developed characters, he ends up with a play that feels like the theatrical equivalent of speed dating: some good one-liners and sharp first impressions that never quite make the case for a deeper relationship.