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'Guide to Dating' leads viewers nowhere

Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating & Marriage must have seemed like a great idea for a quirky, lighthearted play, and maybe it still could be, but the production now premiering at the Straz Center is a bore. Even though it runs just 80 minutes, I was checking my watch long before the Saturday matinee I attended was blessedly over.

Directed and co-written by Ken Davenport, the play was inspired by relationship guru Abigail Grotke, whose website, Miss Abigail's Time Warp Advice (missabigail.com), has been counseling the lovelorn and socially insecure since 1998. The tips are pulled from the more than 1,000 vintage advice books Grotke (who was at Saturday's performance) has accumulated.

There's comic potential here — even dramatic, if you think about Nathaniel West's classic novel Miss Lonelyhearts — but Davenport and his co-author, Sarah Saltzberg, have not found a way to bring the material to life, leaving Laurie Birmingham's Miss Abigail looking lost and increasingly desperate as the play lays an egg on the book-lined set. It's pitched to the lowest common denominator of celebrity pop culture (the Brad-Jen breakup is cited), and Miss Abigail's comic Latino sidekick, Paco (Mauricio Perez) is right out of a sitcom.

Miss Abigail's Guide appears to involve a kind of speaking tour, though I could be wrong about that; the premise is not very clear. Birmingham, a matronly type in red, dutifully recites chapter and verse from advice books like The Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers on topics such as how to dress, how to flirt or how to kiss. All this might make for an amusing diversion on a blog, but it's pretty thin gruel for theater and soon runs out of steam. Then there's the romantic business between Miss Abigail and Paco that is ridiculously contrived to provide some semblance of a story.

When in trouble, you can always try to involve the audience. From time to time ushers hand out wallet cards like "Miss Abigail's 10 Commandments for Couples." On several occasions, Perez hauls people out of their seats and up on stage for rather elaborate routines, with predictably lame results.

Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage runs through July 3 at the Jaeb Theater of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. $29.50 and $34.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

• • •

Ballet fans are in for a treat tonight with the PBS broadcast of Frederick Wiseman's latest documentary, La Danse — Le Ballet de l'Opera de Paris. Like all of his 38 films, including classics such as Titicut Follies, Welfare and Canal Zone, Wiseman's immersive portrait of the Paris Opera Ballet doesn't explain anything. There's no narrative or even identification of the dancers and other ballet company figures (artistic director Brigitte Lefevre is a compelling presence) as the camera meticulously records rehearsals and performances of works ranging from the fiercely contemporary (Pina Bausch's Orpheus and Eurydyce) to warhorses like The Nutcracker.

Filmmakers seem drawn to ballet in their old age. One of Robert Altman's last movies was about the Joffrey Ballet, The Company. Wiseman, 80, returns to the dance after making Ballet, a 1995 documentary on American Ballet Theatre. La Danse airs tonight from 9 until midnight on WEDU-Ch. 3. It repeats at 1 a.m.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

'Guide to Dating' leads viewers nowhere 06/15/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 15, 2010 11:16pm]

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