Andrèa Burns sums up what she has just done by paraphrasing a Stephen Sondheim lyric: “We made a hat where there never was a hat.”
By that, she means that she and the George Street Playhouse team have created a show for a pandemic audience in a form that has few if any precedents and no real definition.
The show in question is “Bad Dates,” a comedy by Theresa Rebeck that first appeared in 2004 when an actress on a stage had no need of 21st century technology to connect with her audience.
George Street—whose new theaters in New Brunswick have been kept dark by the COVID virus—will stream the play from February 23 through March 14, the first of four such presentations that will constitute the playhouse season.
Burns plays Haley, a single mother who supports herself and her teenaged daughter by working at a New York restaurant, and who is breaking a long hiatus from dating.
When the law catches up with the owners of the cash-only restaurant, Haley is abruptly left in charge, and she and the restaurant succeed as never before. She and her dates—not so much. She has a few horror stories to tell while she frantically tries to decide what outfit will work best, pulling out a series of skirts and dresses and shoes and, oh yes, that shoebox full of cash. What’s up with that?
She makes occasional remarks to her unseen and unheard daughter and has a few chats on the phone, but mostly she rattles on to her audience as if it were her collective BFF.
When the legal problems that beset Haley’s employers threaten to topple her, too, who should come to her rescue but the “bug guy” she met in a rain storm during a Long Island benefit for Buddhist books. Never mind, you’ll find out about the Buddhists and the bug guy when you see the play.
Burns said Rebeck’s script endears the audience to Haley, who is painfully honest as she levels with whoever is listening.
“She’s really seeking connection,” Burns said, “perhaps a love connection in the dating world but also a connection with you, her audience, her friends, to bear witness to the highs and lows of being out there as a divorced person dating again. She needs that connection and validation and experience of being heard.”
So what is this art form through which Burns will tell this story?
“It’s kind of a hybrid of a play and a film,” she said. “It’s not as if we did it on a stage in front of an empty audience. The story takes place in a woman’s bedroom, and we shot it on location at the home of a patron of the playhouse. We spent the month of January filming it there while she was wintering in Florida.”
Andréa Burns, an actress, singer, and educator who has been acclaimed for her work on and off Broadway and on television, is not new to the experience of holding an audience’s attention all by herself. She has done it many times in cabaret—but not in this particular form, whatever it is. The performance, she said, took a lot of self-confidence, imagination, and faith.
“Nobody else has lines in this play,” she said. “There’s nowhere to breathe or take a break. It takes an immense amount of concentration. But ultimately, it’s rewarding. It’s something you’re not sure you can actually do, and once you do, you surprise yourself.”
And make no mistake: despite the circumstances that drew her into this enterprise, she’s glad to have had the opportunity.
“It has taken all of my experience and skill to transform this story into a form that hasn’t been done before. I’m proud to be on the cutting edge of that. We don’t know what it is—a play that’s been filmed but neither a film nor a play, which is ultimately cool.”
“Bad Dates” isn’t the only project that has made the past year bearable for Burns.
Her husband, Peter Flynn, is a director, and she said their son, Hudson, a high school senior, is already well versed in filmmaking, camera work, and the technical aspects of online broadcasting. “Creators must create,” Burns said, and all three have been able to use their skills in one way or another, virtually or for charity, over the plague-stricken year.
The actress said it has been thrilling to collaborate with people outside of her immediate circle to create the George Street production, but she also knows what she most looks forward to when the COVID all-clear has been sounded:
“I want to sit in a theater with my fellow audience and experience live theater all as one. I can’t wait for that to come back.”
The George Street Playhouse 2021 Season of four streaming plays is now on sale for $132 per household. Single tickets can be purchased for $33 per household at GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org. Each subscriber household will receive a unique link to view each performance.
Subscription packages are available by calling 732-659-0377.