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Theater Mon Feb 27 2012
"It's a love story," "No, it's a mystery," "No, it's a comedy," "...a comedy-drama,", "It's a drama about a love story"....
Those first few lines of dialogue from writer's Jon Steinhagen's "Dating Walter Dante" are equally poignant and ironic, for the Raven Theater's presentation could have been a superlative suspense drama rather than a mostly good stage play.
Steinhagen writes a story in need of flushing out in one direction; my vote is the dramatic, if only for the fact that the story of Walter Dante plays out as a lurid, blood-soak-sexed-up "get ya' villains and victims right here folks!" in perpetual rotation with every newscast and Nancy Grace minstrel show.
It's a now-daily offering in our society: well-to-do fellow's wife comes up missing and/or dead. The poor girl didn't (seem) to have an enemy in the world. Her husband is the last to see her alive. There's a body that tells no tales, or a body that has evaporated in the planetary ether. Yep, the husband did it. He had to have done it. Why? Because who else would/could/needed to do it? Why? Because we say so, that's mostly why.
Walter Dante (Jason Huysman) has the worst luck ever; he has the fate of two wives to account for. The second Mrs. Dante is missing without a trace of life or death to be found. The first Mrs. Dante, Ellen (Stacie Barra), lingers around in ghostly form, watching over Walter and his new girlfriend Laura Bakersfield (Kristin Collins), sharing what she can remember of her death and life with the audience, and what she remembers is fading fast, leaving us to ponder, is Ellen responsible for her ghostly presence, or as Walter attempts a new life, will Ellen disappear when her memory is replaced in Walter's (and the viewing audience) with the next missing/dead wife case.
Police detective Russell Gibbs (Antoine Pierre Whitfield) knows Dante is guilty for the murder of Ellen and the disappearance/probable murder of the unnamed second wife. So sure is Gibbs he has Ellen's body exhumed (Barra makes you ache as her ghostly self describes her exhumation, making the most militant non-believer think that there may be something to this whole after-life nonsense). Gibbs gets his payoff when new tests indicate that Ellen was indeed murdered, and Gibbs goes into full overdrive to "catch" Dante by any means necessary, including Walter's new love Laura, whose friends -- the unhappily married couple Suzanne and Harper, and Laura's ex-husband Sam -- blow a gasket, think out the worst case scenarios and plot to end Laura's romance with Walter, before Walter, they fear, will end Laura.
Laura is earnest in her feelings for Walter, and those feelings are returned in equal measure. But there is that lingering malaise for Laura's friends, her ex, Gibbs, and even Walter: why does Laura trust Walter so much? Why does she believe in his innocence? Even the ghostly Ellen pays a late-night visit to ask Laura what everyone else has asked before. Ellen gives Laura no reason to believe that Ellen met her demise at the hands of Walter, but still what is wrong with a woman that wants pursue love and life with a man who's got an army of police detectives on his trail and 24-hour news network satellite trucks salivating at the opportunity to finally film his downfall? Kristin Collins in quiet marvel presents Laura as just a nice girl who wants the perfect man, and she's finally found him in Walter - but doesn't everyone of us have a past?
Friends Suzanne and Harper (Brigitte Ditmars and Michael Boone) and ex Sam (Scott Allen Luke) get wind of the couple's first getaway, and in panic, pursue them to the falling leaves and bed and breakfasts of Michigan. I felt for Ditmar and Boone, as Walter Dante should have walked the road of a suspense drama - their characters were written for slapstick, comic relief, and left me wanting more Ellen, Walter, Laura; even Gibbs and Sam had a higher dramatic stakehold in the fate of Walter and Laura (and Ellen and the wife that disappeared). Their bickering dialogue and "Fred & Ethel" insults made me think - "divorce attorney, next exit, turn left at off ramp". The "comedy" was out-of-context in a production that carries so much weight ripped from daily headlines and TV screen tickers.
Their Michigan weekend seals the fate of Walter and Laura's relationship, but leaves the door cracked with uncertainty for everything, as it was destined to play out by the police-wisdom of Gibbs and the relief of ex-husband Sam. Along with every character, we're left to wonder what we're left with, what and whom were we dealing with, which is not so different than the beginning and eventual end of every fine romance.
Dating Walter Dante is playing at the Raven Theatre now through March 24. Tickets and information are available at raventheatre.com or 773-338-2177.