When a First Date is Almost the Last


August 7, 2013

Thou shalt not check the iPhone without first making a brief apology. Thou shalt not assume that he will pay the check. And under no circumstance shalt thou ever admit to her face that thou hast been stalking her on Facebook. 

It’s 2013, and the rules of dating aren’t exactly set in stone. We’ve come a long way since 1938, when advice for single ladies warned against talking while dancing, for “careless women never appeal to gentlemen,” and “when a man dances, he wants to dance.” But just because the rules of the game are trickier doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
With less social pressure to settle down, young people are spending more time than ever searching for love. Meanwhile, as oft-hapless lab rats for studies on the influence of digital technologies on communication, we often find ourselves hopelessly lost in the maze. Should I text him tonight? How many texts make me look interested but not like a creep? What does it mean that he texted me back when he said on Facebook that he had the flu?

These days, we find ourselves caught in a flurry of new social mores around dating. It’s no one’s fault. The truth is that no one really knows what to do anymore. Yet, the penalty for pissing someone off remains as strict as ever. With so many fish in the sea, second chances are rare, and second dates are even harder to come by.

At First Date, a new musical on Broadway, two strangers stumble across the boundaries of propriety, bump up against the various pillars of dating etiquette, and fall in love anyway. Watching a romance grow despite—or perhaps because of—the young couple’s failure to play by the rules, provides a thrill that is vicarious, and often hilarious.

At first sight, the socially awkward Aaron (Zachary Levi, best known for his role on Chuck) approaches the tough, hip Casey (Krysta Rodriguez, best known for her role on Smash) for a hug. When she shies away, he tries a fist bump. Things don’t get much better from there. Casey lectures Aaron about her personal philosophy. He’s so nervous he can barely get a word out without apologizing. Before you know it, she’s called him for what he is—a “First Date Virgin,” and he’s put his foot in his mouth by calling her a “First Date S—.” You get the idea.

Interestingly, in what may be a statement about our time, the insult somehow seems less unnerving than the moment when Aaron admits that he Googled Casey before the date. As colorful lights flash on and off, the omnipotent voice of Google broadcasts commands into the restaurant: “No, Aaron. Don’t do it.” But it is too late. Aaron has already gone there.

With all taboos broken early on, the conversation veers into those uncharted waters where few first dates venture—the Bermuda Triangle of Dating, if you will. Aaron is shocked to discover that his date is not Jewish; he had assumed she was. In one of the play’s most memorable moments, Aaron’s grandmother returns from the dead in her nightgown to waggle her finger at him for making such poor choices. “Oy! A Goy!” The next few minutes of singing and dancing are Broadway at its best, overflowing with singing and dancing and clever wordplay; a Fiddler on the Roof for the young, hipster set.


The patrons at the trendy restaurant don wide-brimmed hats and dance the horah, the waiter becomes a priest sprinkling holy water, and crosses and Stars of David drop from banners in spectacular confusion as Jews and Christians alike insist on the importance of tradition. The scene is smart and self-aware, a way of defusing worry and guilt with lightness and humor.   

Unfortunately, it is in the nature of the romantic comedy to avoid all difficult questions except that big, predictable one about whether a man and woman are going to fall in love in the end, and First Date suffers for its lack of depth. Like the conversation on an actual first date, the dialogue has a tendency to meander aimlessly from subject to subject, rather than pushing any one idea to the point of revelation. After the big, show-stopping production number about religious differences, the show moves on to something else, and there is no more talk of interfaith issues.

By externalizing conflicts in humorous song and dance numbers, the play assumes that the conflicts are somehow resolved. But, as anyone in a relationship can tell you, sometimes you have to actually talk things through. This lack of discussion about the meaning of difference in relationships, the failure to do more than merely portray people with different identities, comes off as a missed opportunity. Then again, perhaps those are conversations better left for a second date.

When First Date succeeds, it isn’t because of the dialogue, which isn’t anything groundbreaking; the music, which is forgettable; or the choreography, which does not make enough use of the protagonists’ considerable grace, and too often leaves the couple stranded at a table for two. Rather, it’s because of the offbeat charm that Mr. Levi and Ms. Rodriguez bring to the table, and the quirky chemistry they cultivate in the second half, the part of the play where the date is going so poorly that the two decide to forget it and just hang out as friends.

Mr. Levi brings plainspoken sincerity to what could have been a sentimental sob story about his dead mother—played, in a standout performance by Sara Chase, (also his dead grandmother). Like a toreador in tap shoes, Aaron banishes the traumatic memory of his ex-girlfriend (Sara Chase again) with a certain nerdy glee that rescues the scene from textbook misogyny. Ms. Rodriguez, while given a lot less to work with, (who would have guessed that the tough rebel chick only acts that way because deep down inside she is scared?), is a powerful, dynamic presence; she sings about her fear of commitment with surprising confidence.

And, although it’s Aaron who pays the check, the two do a nice job of evading easy stereotypes when it comes to gender and relationships. Despite the fact that he’s an I-banker, Aaron isn’t crazy about money or moving up in the corporate ladder; it turns out he’s just interested in saving up now so that he can be a really good dad. Aaron’s also far more neurotic about his appearance than Casey is. He checks in with the waiter for tips on how many buttons to button, and whether or not to wear a tie; she exudes a certain vivacious attitude that matches her leather jacket.

And, just as Aaron must banish the horny bro voice in his head (played by Bryce Ryness, in full-on Ed Hardy mode) in order to get the girl, so Casey must banish the hypercritical voice of the feminine ideal, which berates her for not wanting to settle down and have kids at age 25.

It’s a heartwarming message that these two espouse in the end: that honesty is more attractive than the pretenses we invent, and that differences can strengthen a relationship when each partner is confident in his or her identity. First Date is no theatrical masterpiece, but it’s a great night out for two. 

Photos by Joan Marcus