—Sunday, April 1, 2012—
Finding a celebrity to date was certainly a tall order to fulfill, even with a year to do so and my amazingly good looks. Fortunately, a friend hooked me up with a celebrity date who was even better looking than me and incredibly down to earth. Crazy, I know. Then again, it was April Fools’ Day, so all bets were off.
Before we get started, let’s address a matter critical to this date, which is how we define “celebrity.” Obviously, I’d have loved to land a bonafide A-list celebrity to date, but I had very few connections to such a world. There was some hope that I might find a person who was still far above my general abilities to date, and I made honest attempts to land dates with Aubrey Plaza, Nikki M. James, Zee Avi and Mara Wilson, but to no avail.
From the beginning, I knew that for the purposes of this date, a celebrity simply had to be anyone who was vastly more prominent in their field than anything I could claim and had a following of some kind. I imagined that the world’s most highly-regarded urologist probably wasn’t a household name, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t a celebrity in the medical community. I knew that the bass player of my favorite indie rock band wouldn’t be recognizable to most people on the street, but if she had fans swarming to her shows and singing along, she counted as a celebrity. Even if my date just was the female version of Lucas the Venmo guy, that would be a celebrity in my book.
So, who did I end up with?
Well, I had been posting about my need for a celebrity date on Facebook for some time and eventually, one of my improv friends, Shaun, came to my rescue. He told me that he was friends with someone who was known for playing Elphaba in the massively famous Broadway hit Wicked. Her name was Donna Vivino and she was the current standby for Elphaba, which meant that she was regularly performing in a lead role on one of Broadway’s most well attended shows. I decided that was plenty celebrity enough for me and Shaun put us in touch.
What was interesting was that I’d probably passed by Donna on the street and simply didn’t know who she was because I’d never seen Wicked and knew little of Broadway. You see, we worked in the same building. The Gershwin Theatre, where Wicked was playing, was a part of Paramount Plaza, which was the building where I worked day in and day out. I’d seen the Wicked logo a minimum of five days a week since November of 2010 when I started there and I’d walked past the stage door countless times. It was all too amusing that my date worked in that very theater.
Donna and I had been in communique for a couple weeks, planning this thing out, and I’d made a 7 p.m. reservation at a restaurant in the West Village. I planned to meet Donna at the Gershwin’s stage doors at about 6:30 p.m., and made it there early so that I could get some flowers for her. I was a bit disheartened to find it was raining, but hopefully it would pass.
There was a flower stand on the corner of 8th Avenue, near the stage door, and I hustled over to buy a bouquet. I then found the stage door and, with only a few minutes to spare, took refuge from the rain under the adjacent parking garage cover. I took my phone out to text Donna, but before I could, she rounded the corner.
She said hello and parted ways with some coworkers before greeting me fully. I felt kind of dumb with flowers and a vest and tie on, but it was all in an attempt to class up the evening. This was Celebrity Date, after all. Donna was wearing jeans and a knit top and she was beautiful. All the pictures I’d seen of her online didn’t lie. She checked with me to see if the restaurant was casual and I assured her that it was. Now I really started to think I was overdressed. Clearly she had asked only because I was wearing the vest and tie. I just didn’t know what people looked like when they got out of a Broadway show. Either way, Donna didn’t seem to mind.
I played the flowers off as a “Broadway show” kind of thing, which I suppose they were, but also, I had earnestly wanted to bring her flowers and the Broadway thing was an excuse. I had never brought a date flowers, although I thought it would be nice to do every once in a while. It was just difficult to do it on a first date without looking like I was trying to hard. Given the Broadway context, this only maybe looked like I was trying to hard.
We debated between taking a cab or the train, but the train was close and we had time, so we went for that, walking to the 1 train at 50th Street. Donna thought it was quite funny that she was my Celebrity Date, but did confirm that she had fans. Wicked was so massively popular and had such intense fans that, as someone who regularly played the main protagonist, it was unavoidable that she would end up with a following of her own. She told me a bit about Wicked’s fan-base while we waited on the subway platform.
Donna also explained to me what it meant to be standby for a character. I had assumed it was like an understudy but she told me it was more like a specialist substitute. It seemed to me that the standby was just as capable as the principal actor, but only stepped in when needed, almost like a pinch hitter in baseball.
In fact, Donna had played the role on tour for over two years, including a long stint as the principal, before joining the Broadway cast. When she returned to NYC following the tour, and after a decent break from working, she was asked if she wanted the principal role but chose standby instead because she sought to have more of a work/life balance. I thought that was really wise of her. I seldom met anyone who was successful at what they did in the arts who had enough perspective to seek such a balance. It was such a desperate and vain world to live in that I felt like everyone was always shooting for the top and nothing else was deemed worthwhile. Donna pointed out that Wall Street was probably the same way and I had to agree with her.
Either way, it sounded like a really amazing gig and she totally had fans, so she was a celebrity to me.
Asking about my career, as a low-profile software consultant, Donna was astounded to learn that I worked in the same building as her. I sure did — up on the 30th floor. What’s more was that I’d already gone out with two people from the Circle In The Square Theatre School, which was also located in Paramount Plaza, so that was pretty nuts too. Who would have ever thought that I’d date three actors from the same building in which my financial software company was located?
Two seats opened up for us on the train and we took them. I explained to her what exactly my job was and how I knew Shaun through improv. Interestingly enough, Donna had also done some improv and she was connected to a few people in my comedy world. It was another instance in which we had nearly crossed paths without knowing it.
By the time we were above ground and walking to the restaurant, it was still light out but also still raining lightly, which dampened an otherwise quaint stroll through the West Village. Arriving at Hudson Clearwater, we were both a bit confused, because the main address on Hudson Street didn’t have a door, but we figured out that we had to walk around to a rear patio and enter through that way. It was sort of secretive and cute once we knew what was what.
We were seated right away, at a small table at the base of the stairs, between the few steps that split the dining area and the bar. It was an intimate, yet lively space. I was worried that there was nowhere for Donna to safely place her flowers, but she managed to stash them next to her chair without a problem.
Both of us concurred that the place seemed wonderful right away. Everything was gorgeous, from the tables to the floor to the staff. If the food was as good as the menu had looked online, I was going to be in love with this place.
Looking over the menu, Donna and I began with a discussion on wine and decided upon a Pinot Blanc, based largely on our server’s recommendation. It was dry and a bit tart and our server told us it would work well with most anything, as far as white wines went. The wine discussion brought up Napa Valley and my family out there, which was how I found out that that Donna had lived in Marin Country for a little while and we quickly sussed out that we both adored San Francisco.
Over the course of the project, I had found that when I met up with someone for a date, it was common that I didn’t fully take them in until we had sat down across from one another, especially if I only knew them from the internet. Once seated, I could more properly assess what they looked like and begin to deconstruct their facade. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I simply mean that our imperfections often come out when we are made to sit down across from each other for an extended period of time. I could see if their makeup was slightly off or their hair needed to be colored or, in my case, if they had an asymmetrical smile. These were not necessarily negative things and, on the contrary, felt more like intimate details than aesthetic errors. Often times, there would be one distinguishing feature that I had not noticed previously or was absent in their profile pictures and upon noticing it, I felt like I knew them better.
Donna had none of these that I could see. She was as beautiful as her photos and as ideal as the construct of her that I had in my mind. I knew she was in her thirties and thus, older than me, but her face and hands didn’t show her age at all. Her bright eyes made her look years younger than she really was. Within minutes of sitting down, she had me silently swooning with how beautiful she was and she hadn’t even dressed up.
It didn’t take us too long to order and I salivated over the thought of a meal that included shaved Brussels sprouts, pork loin, white beans, bacon, arugula, apple, bacon, farrow and candied walnuts. Oh my goodness, everything sounded amazing.
Over dinner, we talked about a number of different things.
Donna and I discussed improv — what it had meant to each of us, the lessons inherent in it and how I wouldn’t have been able to do this project if it weren’t for what it taught me. She related to me that she first stumbled upon improv while taking a break from Broadway, following her tour with Wicked, and told me how when she was on tour, she barely had a life outside of the show. That experience was a big part of why she had wanted to be standby for Elphaba, rather than principal. She went on to say that the UCB improv philosophy resonated with her and that she thought the best improv was game-based, which is fairly insider-y terminology for all you non-improv folks. We hadn’t had any of the same teachers, but I knew hers by reputation, and she had loved them all.
She told me one funny story about a female classmate who had found her on Facebook and figured out who she was i.e. Elphaba from Wicked. Donna asked her not to say anything in class since she didn’t want anything to distract from her learning or from other people taking her seriously, but then in class the next week, when her teacher Anthony Atamanuik asked for a suggestion to inspire one of Donna’s scenes, the woman yelled out, “Witch!” Donna quickly replied, “Really?! Don’t do that.” Anthony immediately jumped in and sorted out what was going on. The two women reconciled and Anthony talked to Donna after class, telling her that what she did was appropriate (to call the woman out) and also that his mom was a huge Wicked fan. That really made me laugh. I told her that I’d recently brought my Midwestern Date to see Anthony in The Tony & Johnny Show, and that the show was very borderline in terms of being offensive. Knowing Anthony, she was not surprised.
We talked for a while about the project. She thought it was really cool what I was doing and told me that she’d been similarly trying to stay single. It had been a year and five months of singledom for her, after three three-year relationships. We danced around the issue of our age difference, but it was clear there was a gap when I mentioned I was 26 years old. I think she was in her early to mid-thirties, but I didn’t know for sure, merely going off of something I might have read online. She wholeheartedly agreed that the project was a worthwhile venture and we related on the basic principles of it, which was very cool.
The. Food. Was. So. Good. We tried each other’s dishes with great excitement and both noted how wonderful everything tasted. I’d heard a decent amount of hype about Hudson Clearwater and everyone was absolutely right about this place. It was fan-fucking-tastic.
Donna was from New Jersey and told me about her family. Her parents were divorced and she had two younger brothers. Her father now lived in Los Angeles and he was a musician. In fact, he was Jerry Vivino, the brass player in Conan O’Brien’s house band, Jimmy Vivino & The Basic Cable Band. Oh, and her uncle and godfather was the bandleader, Jimmy Vivino. “Is that celebrity enough for you?” she asked.
I laughed and Donna added that, if my readers demanded more celebrity credentials, I could tell them that she had originated the role of Young Cosette in Les Misérables on Broadway. Though I didn’t know much about Broadway, I knew how significant Les Mis was and thought that this was incredibly cool. Her status really didn’t need to be debated — she was way more famous than me. She had a Wikipedia page, for crying out loud. And she’d been on MTV’s MADE, guys. Are you satisfied???
With such a talented family, it wasn’t entirely surprising to find out that Donna had been entrenched in Broadway for most of her life and she told me about getting into it as a child and doing it up until high school. She had taken a break from Broadway throughout her teens, doing the normal high school theater thing, before going to Barnard College to study something entirely different (Pre-law). However, she was still in the city and when she got a call from a casting agent during her senior year to audition for a part, she decided to give it a shot and booked the gig. “The rest is history,” she said. She found that she enjoyed it again and went back to performing consistently. It was very cool to hear that her return had felt natural and wasn’t something she felt she had to do.
We went on to talk about dating in general and I told her that one of the things I liked about dating was that it gave people a chance to dress up. I admitted that I felt a little overdressed, but we both acknowledged that it was hard to overdress in NYC. It was nice that you could dress up here and not be made to feel out of place. She told me that I looked nice and that I could get away with it in NYC, which I was relieved to hear. I thought she looked beautiful, even in her casual clothes, so we were both doing okay.
As we finished up, and drank our wine, we sat with the dessert menus in front of us for so long and the staff asked if we wanted anything so many times, that we were practically obligated to order something. It wasn’t a problem though and so we did. We opted for some kind of chocolate and raspberry tart and it was absolutely delicious.
We talked more about our families and our dynamics with our parents and siblings. I told Donna about my deceased mom and about the one time in 2007 when the legendary improv team Death By Roo Roo, which Donna’s teacher Anthony happened to be on, interviewed me for their show called Your Fucked Up Family. They went after the heavy subject matter in such a direct and hilarious way that I couldn’t help but find it cathartic. I laughed my ass off at that show and it had always stood out to me as an incredibly special moment in both improv and in the process of dealing with my mother’s death. I knew it was slightly odd to take joy from the comedy of a personal tragedy, but Donna totally understood it. Of course she understood it. I loved that she understood it. I was totally enamored.
I picked up the bill for dinner simply because I really wanted to and Donna let me. She already had her wallet out, but I was having a wonderful time and I wanted to treat her. She thanked me and went to use the bathroom. Once she was back, I did the same.
Donna had mentioned to me at some point that, like me, she was a night owl, and I knew that the next day was her day off, so I asked if she would be up for another drink. She confirmed that she would be and so we left Hudson Clearwater in pursuit of libations. Our meal had set the bar high for that night, but I hoped we could find a juice joint that might match it.
My good buddy ole Brad had suggested Little Branch, which was a nearby cocktail bar, and Donna said that she was willing to check it out. In fact, Brad had told also me about Hudson Clearwater. If Little Branch turned out to be any good, I owed Bradley a firm handshake and hot cup of coffee the next day.
Using my phone, with the umbrella held firmly in the other hand, I navigated us to Little Branch, which was on a very unassuming street corner. The door was largely unmarked with just the words “Little Branch” in small brass letters which barely stood out against its brown paint. We opened the door and saw an immediate set of stairs that led down to a basement. This already looked promising.
Entering the bar, we first noticed the live jazz trio to our left, sectioned off in a very compact performance space. The place’s entire aesthetic was dimly lit and old fashioned, much like a speakeasy, but without the affectedness of some lesser bars. We were seated by a well dressed host and given menus to peruse. We discussed drinks and we both liked gin, so when the waiter came over, we each told him our preferences.
For Donna, he recommended a blackberry and gin drink and told me that he’d have the bartender prepare something with gin and citrus, per my tastes. I loved places that knew their stuff like this one did. The music was great too and we talked about jazz for a bit. I told her about the drum set my brother and I had recently restored for my dad for his sixtieth birthday. Once upon a time, he’d been a jazz drummer and I could imagine him playing in some tiny place like this, just for the love of it.
I remarked that the Little Branch’s vibe reminded me of Sleep No More, which we talked about for a while since we had both seen it four times. My roommate Pat had first experienced it only a few days prior and I had nearly purchased tickets to see a remixed version of it that night, which would have altered my plans to go on this date with Donna. I was incredibly grateful that I never got my hands on those tickets.
Our cocktails arrived a short time later and they were amazing. Donna’s drink looked like some kind of grown-up snow cone with a base of muddled blackberries, a healthy pour of gin and crushed ice filling the glass. A spoon straw perfectly completed the picture. It tasted great too and we both approved. I was delivered something akin to a citrusy gin and tonic that was slightly pink and altogether very splendid.
As we talked, more emphatically under the guise of some booze, the occasional forearm was grabbed for effect or bumped out of excitement or brushed because we wanted them to be. Gradually, over the course of an hour or two, I came to be holding Donna’s hand in mine and looking into her eyes. Our two empty cocktail glasses and a handwritten bill sat waiting for us.
What next? I wondered. It was time to go, but no one was moving. I smiled. She smiled. I looked back into her eyes and saw a glint of something promising. I clenched her hands and pulled her towards me.
Extended over the small table, we kissed. It was the kind of kiss I could write a novel about. This was the stuff that dreams were made of. I was on cloud nine.
Relaxing back into our seats, I kissed Donna’s hands as I held them. I missed kissing a woman’s hands. We kissed a few more times before we acknowledged that we must be going. Donna covered the drinks while I used the bathroom. I saw that Little Branch had house rules posted on the wall and, while Donna used the lady’s room, I requested my own copy from the bartender.
Once she’d returned from the bathroom, I helped Donna with her jacket. The place made me want to be a real classy gentleman, but then again, so did the vest and tie, and so did Donna. It all seemed to fit.
We walked outside and meandered through the West Village to find a train uptown. I knew that I wouldn’t be spending the night with Donna, since we both had places to be in the morning and we lived a state apart, so I tried my very best to savor my final minutes with her.
I carried one of her bags and noticed that it was made by Original Penguin, same as the shirt I was wearing. It was one of my favorite brands.
At 7th Avenue, Donna held my arm and I kissed her again. Across the street we went and eventually, after a small detour, we found ourselves on the uptown subway platform.
Amid the noise of an arriving train, we kissed again. Once on board, Donna leaned into me and as the 1 train made all of its local stops, we kissed in between each one. She was the perfect height, resting her head just below my chin. I could smell her hair and kiss the top of her head with hardly an adjustment. Leaning only slightly, I could give her a kiss on the cheek. I held her close, hoping that the 1 train would decide the starting running on a continuous loop so that this never had to end.
We disembarked from the train and found our way underground to the Port Authority. Donna lived across the river in Hudson Country, so she was taking a bus home that night, and I walked with her all the way to the subway exit because I wanted as much time with her as I could get. It was going to be a late night for me anyway.
Before she finally passed through the turnstile, we kissed again and found that there was no easy way to cut it off.
Damn, I thought. If this were a Friday or a Saturday, I think I’d be going to New Jersey. Or, at least, I’d be begging to go to New Jersey. Either way, it was what it was and what it was was wonderful.
We parted ways and I wore a fool’s smile all the way home.