Off Book

By Robert Bruce Carter | Romance
A small-town girl goes on a date with a big city guy. Then he hands her a script.

Natalie is a bright, smart small-town girl who just moved to the city, waiting in a hip coffee shop for a first date. When Steve enters, it's clear he's an in-the-know man of the city, as well as a cool and handsome actor, and Natalie quite can't believe her luck.

But Steve has brought to this first date a strange neurosis that seems at first silly and eccentric -- a literal script of how he thinks the date should go. At first Natalie tries to humor Steve, but his insistence on them following the script derails the date, exposing Steve as a bit of a lunatic and leaving Natalie in a bind as she tries to extract herself from the situation.

Written and produced by Mindy Fay Parks and Eric Feltes, and directed by Robert Bruce Carter, "Off Book" is a nimble, quick-witted romantic comedy that casts a smart, ironic and knowing eye at the rituals of modern dating, as well as the insecurities and neuroses that underlie it.

Narratively compact, the story is essentially a long scene -- a first date that becomes anything but a "meet cute." The writing has an ear for the bright, cheerful yet slightly "presentational" dialogue that accompanies first dates, all fueled by the desire to make a great first impression. Natalie's hopeful optimism is echoed as well by the sunny, warm cinematography, which gives a lovely sheen to the setting and proceedings. When Steve enters the coffeehouse, our potential romance seems off to a promising start.

But just as the date gets underway -- and Steve presents not just Natalie but the servers with a script to follow -- Natalie realizes what was first a strange quirk is legitimately weird and not a little delusional.

What works is that Steve's behavior is outlandish and ridiculous, but actor Eric Felte plays it straight, as if insisting on following a script on a first date is absolutely normal. Actor Mindy Fay Parks also plays Natalie with a sense of emotional groundedness and sweetness, which function as a kind of stand-in for the audience.

The script that Steve presents is also slyly funny, poking fun at the various ways he hopes Natalie will massage his ego, and how the date offers him a chance to "show off." Nowhere in the script is an actual effort to get to know Natalie on her own terms, and the story and humor escalates as Steve increasingly leans on his script, doubling down on his rigidity when things don't seem to be going his way.

When Steve insists on Natalie playing a role that she doesn't fall into, she realizes there's no hope for Steve and must find a way to extract herself as gracefully as possible out of this very bad, no-good, terrible first date -- though she also finds a note of hope at its end.

"Off Book" is an elaborate and unique take on the bad first date. But with its central riff on "following the script" and being forced to "play a role," it's actually based on the emotional truth that too often we're following a script in our minds of what love, romance or relationships should look like, instead of focusing on figuring out if there's a chance for authentic chemistry and connection.

It may be easier to follow societal ritual and unspoken rules when it comes to romance and love -- and it certainly can allay the anxiety of dating -- in the end we all have to be ourselves. For the right person, your authentic self should be enough... though clearly it takes a few wrong dates to find them.

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