That Haneefah Wood is a comic force to reckon with was pretty clear from her hilariously over-the-top portrayal of Cassandra, the soothsaying housekeeper in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,’’ at the Huntington Theatre Company.
But in that 2015 production, Wood was part of an ensemble, her turns in the spotlight intermittent and fleeting. How would the actress fare when she was the only person onstage, faced with the task of singlehandedly enlisting and sustaining the audience’s attention throughout Theresa Rebeck’s “Bad Dates?’’
Just fine, as it turns out. Quite a bit more than fine, actually. Wood delivers a performance in the Huntington’s “Bad Dates’’ of such confidence, energy, and inventiveness that it’s almost as if she has been secretly hankering for a chance to answer that question — in boldfaced exclamation points.
This is one of those cases, not infrequent in theater, when a performance is better than the play. Wood’s inexhaustible brio helps to drown out the sound of clanking plot machinery in “Bad Dates,’’ which is directed by Jessica Stone, who was also at the helm for “Vanya.’’ Wood plays Haley Walker, a restaurant manager and divorced mother of a 13-year-old, who is venturing back into the confusing waters of the dating world. Haley’s search for Mr. Right, it will not shock you to learn, involves misadventures with one Mr. Wrong after another.
It’s only been 14 years since Rebeck’s solo comedy was produced at the Huntington after premiering earlier in New York, but social mores change so fast that “Bad Dates’’ can’t help seeming old-fashioned at times, despite the inclusion for this production of a few digital-age references to Netflix and Tinder. The premise of one sequence — when Haley’s mother sets her up with a guy who turns out to be gay — seems to belong to the era of “Three’s Company’’ (elsewhere in the play there’s a reference to none other than . . . Suzanne Somers). A tonal shift near the end of “Bad Dates’’ is not persuasive.
But there are sound reasons that Rebeck ranks among the most widely produced playwrights around, and they include her gift for pungent dialogue (or, as in “Bad Dates,’’ monologue) and her knack for creating characters who have a sharp grasp of the absurdity of their own situations.
The hyperverbal Haley charms us right out of the gate, words tumbling out of her in a fast-flowing torrent as she confides in the audience while trying on shoes and dresses in the bedroom of her New York apartment, preparing for what is apparently her first date in a long time. (The apartment is handsomely designed by Alexander Dodge, whose sets are invariably a feast for the eyes.)
Haley has personality to burn and a job in which she finds personal satisfaction and even meaning (“There is nothing better in life than being allowed to do a job that you’re good at.’’), although there is that small complicating fact that the restaurant she runs is a front for the Romanian mob, which is using it to launder money. The dating world also contains challenges aplenty; she puzzles over the mysteries of men (“Men will happily sleep with someone they don’t like. Women won’t.’’), and gives nicknames to some of them (“Bug Guy,’’ “Wretched Companion’’).
Wood mines comic gold out even the smallest moments. In one scene, she wrings big laughs out of her enunciation of a single word (“What?’’) while describing a date who babbled on about how relationships are like movies. In another, she subtly and deftly modulates her facial expression and tone of voice from tentative puzzlement to full-on indignation while on the phone with a guy who has stood her up. Later in the play, Wood, who is African-American, brings a knowing twist to a line about going to the police for help.
About those shoes: Even more than Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City,’’ Haley has a thing for designer shoes. An 8-foot-high rack in her bedroom is overflowing with footwear; more shoes are in her closet; and downstage right is a kind of shrine on which sits a pair of blue high-heels. If you’re thinking that Haley’s constant, restless search for the right pair of shoes is a metaphor for the uncertainties of the dating world, you’re not wrong.
Play by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Jessica Stone. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through Feb. 25. Tickets: From $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.