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Theater Review: A First Date That Feels Like You’ve Been On It Before

Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez in First Date.

Summer 2013 seems destined to be remembered as the season of the heteronormative love-musical. First came the refreshingly brainy Nobody Loves You Off Broadway, and now the Great White Way is host to First Date, a button-cute, push-button micro­romance starring Chuck’s Zachary Levi and Smash’s Krysta Rodriguez. Let’s put on our OKCupid goggles and go trope-hunting, shall we? Our man-boy, Aaron (Levi), is an uptight Type-A overthinker with chronic nice-guy syndrome and the raw carnality of a prepubescent flatworm. His mismatched potential inamorata is Casey (Rodriguez), an artsy, sardonic wild child in stiletto heels, chased by commitment issues and a fear of abandonment. The show’s title is all the premise you need (though “blind date” would’ve been a bit more accurate): Aaron’s never gone on one of these; Casey ruefully runs through ’em like baseball cards she’s buying only for the gum. The elastic ensemble plays all the voices — family, friends, exes — screaming in the would-be lovers’ heads. There are bits about Google-stalking, evil exes, and (in one of the show’s best moments) the “Awkward Pause.” And, in the way of these shows, there’s a Gay Best Friend hovering on the margins, as if mandated by the insurer.

Does this show sound familiar — like, compendium-of-a-million-open-mike-nights familiar? Austin Winsberg’s book does nothing to disguise it: He aims broadsides at the barn-door clichés of modern dating (minus sexting-while-office-seeking) and hits often enough. Staged in relatively real time (with asides for musical fantasy sequences), the date gets off to a poor start. (If it didn’t, would we have a story?) Aaron shows up overdressed, proves to be exhaustingly awkward, and never fails to sabotage himself; he’s cheering for a forfeit. Casey, believing it’s all a wash from the second Aaron’s eyedrops go in, is relentlessly hostile; she’s not so much talking to Aaron as she’s tweeting at him. I began the show vaguely detesting these people — who aren’t people at all, of course, but situation-comedy mannequins. That I ended the night in a different mood is a testament to something: The show’s sticky likability? My covert desire to be seduced? Both? Point is, the show is working with what it’s got, even when it’s got very little to work with.

The obstacles facing Casey and Aaron are not just garden-variety but industrially farmed: She’s not Jewish! He’s too “safe” and square to be sexually exciting! The surface allure — and the niggling frustration — of First Date is its breezy ability to coax one-liners into becoming whole scenes and songs. (Scenes and songs, it should be mentioned, that exhibit a faint, not-exactly-chauvinistic but nonetheless-noticeable straight-male bias: The program is Nerd Meets Pixie-grrl all over again.) The high-water mark of the evening is Aaron’s giddy go-to-hell number (“In Love With You”), where he roars to angry life, exorcising the spirit of his castrating ex. Levi, a musical-theater guy before he was abducted by Chuck, brings down the house with it, in his charismatic empowered-shlemiel style, but honestly? What a yawn. The gelded good guy, hot as hell beneath his thick-rimmed glasses, is as musty as the mad housewife and the hooker with a heart of gold, and he ought to slip into the mists of history. Casey’s not exactly Zooey Deschanel, and her fiery temperament and forthright sexuality bring new life to the artsy-chick liberation myth—yet she’s still a dream girl. But hey, you didn’t come to First Date for anthropology, did you?

The songs (by Alan Zachary and ­Michael Weiner, of the upcoming Secondhand Lions) are pleasant, often energetic Broadpop bonbons with better-than-­average lyrics, but apart from Gay Bestie’s oft-repeated “Bailout Song” (performed with flair by Kristoffer Cusick), they won’t haunt your dreams or even your cab ride home. They do have a balls-out confidence when it comes to avoiding daintiness, and there’s wit, warmth, and charm in sufficient abundance to keep us engaged for 90 minutes, but one can’t shake the feeling that the total emotional content here might sustain one Maltby and Shire scene-song from Closer Than Ever and no more. (Also, a tech quibble: The amplification’s a bit at war with the dense lyrical articulation. This feels like a show for a smaller house, expanded a few clicks beyond its recommended size, though the cast does muscular work covering that up.) 

First Date, in its rubber heart, is as reductive and aggregate-data-based as modern dating itself. The message of the show — if you don’t count its slight whiff of settle down already, you young sluts — is that it pays to get beyond first impressions. (What else would the “message” of a show called First Date be?) But its unintentional subtext is, What you see is more or less what you get: Aaron’s precisely who Casey thinks he is, albeit with a touch more tantalizing tragedy in his life than she figured. And Casey’s more or less whom Aaron fears she is, too, albeit with a bit more empathy. We don’t get to dig much deeper: Isn’t Aaron’s puppy-dog diffidence a form of hostility too? Does Casey’s attraction to bad-boy commitmentphobes deserve a little more musical therapy—beyond “Dad left, I’m screwed up”? Are we all supposed to pretend that Zachary Levi isn’t a very attractive person?

No matter: The creative team’s real achievement begins and ends with casting. It isn’t so much that Levi and Rodriguez exceed the rather restricted types they’re playing; it’s how they keep making us forget that they’re playing types. In those moments, you’re watching chemistry, not math, and the show’s inherent agreeableness and take-me-I’m-yours-I’ll-do cuteness come oozing through. As in any relationship, functional or dys-, passionate or pathological or both, First Date builds on a pleasant lie, namely that we’re rooting for these two beguiling opposites whose attraction is never, for an instant, in doubt. They’re immensely likable, perhaps even lovable individuals posing as contemptible silhouettes. Maybe that’s all dating is, a series of stock poses arrayed against a series of predictable confessions, and a jigsawing together of the best of limited options. First Date roofies us ruthlessly with its absolutely unobjectionable nice-guy-ness, and we end up wanting the best not just for Aaron and for Casey — but for AaronandCasey — even if the show feels suspiciously like it’s settling.

First Date is at the Longacre Theatre.

Photo: Joan Marcus