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As I slurp my cocktail, the first date next to me is going south: An adorkable guy just met his Grindr crush in the flesh, and although he’s tall and handsome, the conversation ain’t pretty. All the talk about ab workouts and sugar-free Red Bull is a total turnoff. And then suddenly, I hear a girl scream, “I want to lick your asshole!” at the top of her lungs. And with that, I’m off in search of a new voyeuristic thrill.
No, this isn’t just an average Saturday night for me. I’m at PLAY/DATE, a new spectacle about finding that special someone, at the multilevel club Fat Baby on the Lower East Side. Over the course of two hours, 18 performers portray more than 40 characters on three levels in playlets by 17 different dramatists. (Whew!) Conceived by multimedia artist Blake McCarty and directed and designed by immersive-theater pioneer Michael Counts (of GAle GAtes et al. theater-troupe fame), PLAY/DATE is funny, insightful and titillating—or depressing, annoying and groan-inducing, depending on which parts you choose to experience. So, not unlike, you know, dating in New York City.
“It’s all about the freedom of discovery,” explains Counts. “If you get bored with a scene, you can wander off to find something else on the menu,” he says, noting that many scenes occur simultaneously. “The parallel to dating is clear: If you commit to something, then you sacrifice other possibilities. Some audiences find that joyous; others think it’s frustrating.”
Whether you call it immersive, interactive or environmental theater, there’s no question that these choose-your-own-adventure shows are in high demand, attracting nontraditional audiences that may feel more comfortable wandering around with a drink than sitting in a seat and respecting the fourth wall. And PLAY/DATE seems to break down all the rules of traditional theater etiquette. You can Facebook-message the actors before and after the performance and hang with their characters at the bar well into the evening. “There are lots of shows, particularly Sleep No More, which have been instrumental in popularizing the genre,” says Counts. “But I think a lot of things led up to it, like video games and social media, the sense of being the protagonist in your own story,” he adds, explaining that ticket buyers can interact with characters.
PLAY/DATE marks a return to Counts’s indie-theater roots after a succession of bigger-budget projects, notably Philharmonic 360 with the New York Philharmonic at the Park Avenue Armory and The Ride (yep, that one—the ubiquitous Times Square bus with the waving tourists). Counts says he was attracted to the “intimacy” of PLAY/DATE, as well as the chance to work with longtime friend McCarty, who produced a workshop of the show at East Village gastropub Penny Farthing last fall costarring Counts’s wife, Sharon. “It was inspired by a very Oprah period when my then-roommate [one of the playwrights, Sara Jo Wyllie] and I decided to say yes to anyone who asked us out,” says McCarty. “We had a lot of war stories.”
But the show changed greatly once Counts came aboard. “It was just a series of plays before; it wasn’t a world,” Counts recalls. “I’d been wanting to do a show in a bar where you wouldn’t know who was in it and who wasn’t. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that everything is theater, even watching a couple at a table having an argument.”
Coproduced by high-tech theater company 3-Legged Dog, PLAY/DATE also unfolds in the virtual world. Audiences are invited to follow the characters on social media, and some of the vignettes take place entirely via text or dating sites, with the chats projected on giant wall-mounted, smartphone-style flatscreens.
There are no strict rules in terms of interacting with the performers. An opening monologue by the bartender sets some guidelines (when someone asks you to move, move, and don’t mess with someone else’s game), but the rest is really up to you. “One night, this woman was hitting on one of the actors after the show,” Counts says. “But was she attracted to him or the character he played? He decided to stay in character as she bought him a drink, which I thought was brilliant.”
Ultimately PLAY/DATE isn’t just about hooking up. Like much of Counts’s prior work, it explores the complexities of the human condition by letting you participate in it. Or as he puts it: “The audience is the 19th performer in this thing.
PLAY/DATE returns to Fat Baby on September 28th for an open ended run.