A-wooing at the Royal Court

It doesn't seem an obvious way to meet Mr or Ms Right, but `singles nights' at the theatre are all the rage in New York. And now they're coming to London. By Daniel Jeffreys
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New York - that has to be a sexy city, huh? Right. So you want to know the hot date spots? Try the corner of Broadway and 86th Street. That would be the Zoo Club, wouldn't it? Wrong. That's Barnes and Noble, a bookstore with tables and coffee. It's the new romance. Professional, no alcohol or loud music, lots of literate conversation.

"The Manhattan dating game has changed," says New York psychotherapist Sharyn Woolf, author of Guerrilla Dating Tactics. "Both men and women now have different roles and that makes the dialogue of dating very difficult. With the risk of Aids, people are getting to know each other in different ways. Couples are courting again and finding each other through conversation."

"Do you come here often?" That's the line I decide against as I go single for a night at the York Theatre. It seems too literal, not Shakespearian enough. I'm among lots of suits and silk at the York's first "singles night" of the season. Nobody has any obvious body-piercing; we're here to unite our fabulous professional futures with somebody cute.

So where do we start? There's Lisa, about 32 and dressed in a nice blue suit just like mine. We've both watched Standing By, a romantic comedy by Norman Barasch. Now we're enjoying a drink and some nibbles. "Hi, so have you ever been to LA?" Lisa gives me a look that takes in my physique and the cut of my suit. She's doing big-time calculations and I gather my question wasn't on her prepared menu. "Sorry?" Whoops! Be more direct, warns my inner voice: she's American and probably an accountant. "LA, that's where they started - the two in the play. They met on a flight from LA to New York. Have you ever been there?" "Where?"

Either I no longer speak English or Lisa's nerves have strangled her cerebral cortex. "Oooh, LA. Sorry, I'm a bit nervous. This is my first time." At last, Lisa and Lisa's brain have contact, but I'm a wreck. It's hot and she's checking out the sweat on my forehead. "Are you OK?" She gives me a sweet smile and a napkin to mop my brow. And yes, she's an accountant, she loved the play and she gives me her card. "Call me at work." That's "passing Go" in the New York dating game: no home numbers at first meeting.

"These theatre evenings have been just great," says Joe De Michael, managing director of the York. "We have a singles night the first Friday of every production. That gives us about five a season. The second Friday we have a singles event for gays and lesbians. Everybody loves these evenings because they automatically have something to talk about. The play breaks the ice."

It does. Here comes Andie and I'm between her and the smoked salmon. "Excuse me." "Sure," I say. "Have you seen any other Barasch plays?" Half an hour later the salmon has curled with the brown bread and we're on to Shakespeare. I look around and see at least 20 other couples doing Coles notes and close eye contact.

"Nobody needs a pick-up line here," says De Michael. "The theatre singles are not a meat market. Everybody has something specific in common: when you come here, you know you'll get a literate group of people. This is our ninth season and every year we get more people wanting tickets."

The York Theatre is part of a $100 million industry. Singles are a serious business. The New York State Chamber of Commerce has registered over 200 dating agencies since 1980. Agencies are popular, but for many they're an admission of failure. Singles nights are a half-way house: you're still free to choose your date from a room full of real people - and there's lots of variety.

"We started up five years ago," says Ruth Leach of Single Booklovers. "It's been a huge success. People who like to read are a special group. We arrange dinners for about 100 members at a time. The conversation is always totally frenetic, and we never seem to have any lemons." Leach says her group helps people who are too busy to meet through more random channels. "We had a marriage last year. The two people both worked in the same office building and had gone to the same university, but they met through Booklovers."

Andie has just given me her card and it's time to move on. At first I'm shocked by the apparent promiscuity of the evening. Then it dawns - time is short and this is all about sampling. Mr or Mrs Right may be out there but you won't know unless you cast a wide net. "I never go home with anybody from the theatre nights," says Paul, a banker whom I meet at the bar. "That's a waste. I want to collect numbers and take my time getting to know a few women." A bit later I look around and see him talking to Andie and I just know he'll get her business card.

Sharyn Woolf applauds the theatre singles. "Just showing up takes lots of courage but for a professional woman it's much easier to go to a play than a bar - the conversation is built into the evening. People should enjoy themselves and make friends of both sexes. Everybody has a list of people you probably don't already know and meeting them is the start of meeting their list."

Joe De Michael says the type of play is vital. "Tragedies generate better singles conversations than comedies. I don't know why." Maybe, if you laugh too much, you can't take the singles scene seriously? De Michael disagrees. "I think tragedies scare people to think about making their lives better."

"We don't have singles evenings, that would be crass." Dan Lacovara is based at the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts and runs the Centre Circle, one of New York's most popular singles clubs (but don't call it that). Andie and Paul are both members. "This is a way for high-class people to meet and know they'll have something in common. For singles, New York is a candy shop. Every hour hundreds of new faces arrive in the city, so you must be selective. Our Meet the Artist events are especially popular."

They don't sound like the best place for a pick-up, but Lacovara is adamant. "People get to discuss the play with the performers. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they ask a question about Wagner or Mamet; it's a lot more revealing than their choice of pick-up line. Young professionals don't have time for a lot of bull."

As I discover at Barnes and Noble, the bookstore. This place really is hot: bright lights, hard chairs and lots of twenty-somethings locked in early literary love. I'm sitting with Kim. Kim is Jewish and says New York Jews have the biggest singles scene. "It's so organised - and it's encouraged by the Rabbis. They're afraid there's too much assimilation."

My friend Cassie got married a year ago and, before that, went regularly to Jewish singles clubs. "I was 40 and running PR for one of America's biggest media companies. I was so far out of dating, my favourite pick- up line was `Didn't I zip up your fly at Woodstock?' The singles clubs seemed the only route." Cassie winces at the memory. "It was dreadful. The first thing you'd talk about is how awful these evenings are; then you'd talk about jobs. In New York, your career is the only currency that counts."

I tell Kim about Cassie. She says the experience is typical for young Jewish women - bad food at New York hotels with over-anxious men in suits. "But Cassie got married," says Kim. "Did she meet him at a singles night?"

No, Cassie met Steve at a Sit Shiva, a Jewish funeral. "The only person I knew there was Steve's best friend Mark and it was Mark's father who was dead. I really liked the look of Steve, but how do you get introduced at a funeral? It's not tasteful to get the dead guy's son and ask, `Who's the cute friend?' So who knew? How could I tell I'd meet my match at a wake."

Kim hands me her business card and I ask why she started coming to the bookstore. "I paid $2,000 for a dating agency. They promised me six dates in three months, but none worked out, so I didn't renew my subscription. They started calling me on Friday and Saturday nights to say how sorry they were that I was alone at the weekend. I didn't want to pay again but the calls made me depressed. I like to read, so this seemed a good solution, even if I don't meet anybody."

Maybe Kim should try funerals - or a play. As I left the York, a laughing couple had just agreed to share a cab downtown. They already seemed comfortable in each other's company. "Have you seen Cats?" asked the man. I waited, anxiety mounting. "No," she said. Phew! That's at least one more date.

n The Royal Court holds its first Singles Night tomorrow at 7.30pm. Booking 0171-730 1745