Directed, produced, and created by Rebecca Northan. A Spontaneous Theatre production, presented by the Arts Club Theatre Company. At the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on Thursday, November 29. Continues until December 30
Our hyperwired world connects us more than ever before, but in other ways, we’re depressingly disconnected. When adults spend eight to 10 hours a day on screens, face-to-face contact becomes rarer and rarer.
That’s got to be one of the reasons that Blind Date, the little, improvised, two-person play from Toronto has grown into such a phenomenon, celebrating a decade on-stage and popping up in New York City and London. Its palpably honest new iteration at the Arts Club is a strong reminder that audiences are craving intimacy, authenticity, and real human connection.
By now you’ve probably heard of the premise: French-born, clown-nosed Mimi (Tess Degenstein) has been stood up on a blind date, so she selects a guy from the audience to step in. She spends the rest of about 90 minutes forming a relationship with him at the bistro table and elsewhere, in front of the audience. The beauty of the concept is that it feels like a real blind date—amid the laughs, these are strangers carefully navigating the route to friendship, in all its awkwardness and, often, genuine sweetness. The stranger becomes ever more willing to divulge details about his life, and Degenstein returns the favour by revealing her own stories (ones that are real, even though they’re filtered a bit through her French character).
At the end of this night, Degenstein praised the willing participant—and his beyond-understanding wife in the audience—for his bravery. But Degenstein, who’s taken on this improvised role elsewhere in Canada, deserves just as much credit for gamely jumping into a role that’s a bit like leaping off a cliff on a hang glider: she can never quite know where it’s going to swerve, catch the breeze, or land.
First and foremost, Degenstein reveals herself to be a brilliant listener, absorbing details about the visitor’s life—in this night’s case, his referral to Saskatchewan as “Sask-scratch-yer-ass” and the population of his tiny Prairie hometown—and then circling back to them in hilarious ways later in the show.
Blending the antics of a screwball comedian with French-gamine style and physical clowning, she scrinches up her face when she laughs, bats her eyelashes and scooches up to her date when she’s trying to take things further, and is unafraid to conceal a drink or two up her skirt. (Degenstein will sometimes alternate the role with Lili Beaudoin and Ali Froggatt for this run.) Some of the best moments come when she puts her guest on the spot (should they go back to her place for a drink?) and lets him squirm a bit.
One tiny reservation: aside from the clown nose (a necessary distancing device here, for sure), Mimi is just a bit too accommodating—sexy red dress, all ears, easy to laugh at all her guest’s jokes. (“I love zees,” she says in her coquettish French accent after he tells a story.) But let’s give this a pass, because she’s so willing to get goofy, too.
By nature, the results are going to range wildly from night to night, depending on the date; in fact, die-hard fans will undoubtedly catch more than one show over its long run. And it takes a little while to get things rolling; in this age of consent, the rules of the theatrical game have to be spelled out first (there are time-outs, even for the wife or partner of the participant), and the conversation—as in real life—takes a while to warm up. However, the payoff in the final act is huge, and the fearless improvisation of it all is often entertaining.
And, guys, if you’re terrified about being dragged on-stage against your will, don’t fret: Degenstein and the others carefully ply the cocktail lounge before the show, looking for willing (or at least semi-willing) volunteers. By all evidence, they have an incredible knack for finding the unaffected and sweet.
Okay, so maybe that won’t feel as real as your own last blind date, but everything else will seem disarmingly true to off-screen life.