Not long after the start of the Terry Beck Troupe's "Waiters," performed at Dance Place this past weekend, Beck fondles and then dances with an inflatable rubber "love doll," having dressed her in a party gown he's retrieved from a steamer trunk.

It's a beguiling sequence, at once comical, poignant and forlorn, a telling little fantasy of unfulfilled yearning.

It is, however, the high point of the 65-minute dance-theater piece, and what follows is, by and large, downhill. "Waiters" has, to be sure, a unifying conceit -- a group of variously insecure individuals at a dance, searching for and missing connections with a desirable partner. There are metaphoric overtones too, extending to life's eternal quest for togetherness in a more general sense. The trouble is that nothing in the work's structure, design or execution really lives up to the promise of the theme.

Beck, who's been choreographing since 1980, founded his Philadelphia-based troupe in 1984 after dancing for eight years with the same city's ZeroMoving Dance Company. He's assembled an attractive group of seasoned performers -- three men and three women, in addition to himself -- who strike one as interestingly diverse people. But their individuality is only skimpily exploited in "Waiters," which in this respect and others seems like a series of fumbled opportunities.

"Waiters" unfolds in a continuum of scenes, accompanied by a taped montage of pop and swing numbers. A revolving mirrored ceiling ball and strings of suspended lights serve to establish the ambiance. One couple (Janet Pilla and Ranse Howell), in formal attire, sweeps smoothly through ballroom routines as a linking device. There's an opening scene in which the others primp and dress for the dance, and afterward a lot of ineffectual flirtation, and eventually, a mambo lesson for the whole group. In a later scene, the three women (Pilla, Robin Patchefsky and Miriam Glassman Giguere) stay bored and aloof while the men (Beck, Howell, Karl Schappell and Josh Walbert) try vainly to attract them with everything from pelvic grinds to flashy tap dance. At one point, the work suddenly turns temporarily and confusingly into a postmodern pattern dance. Several duets and a solo passage along the way are vague in intent and undistinguished in form. In the end, as the ballroom couple glides through another dance, the others scramble futilely up a metal lattice at stage rear (the success ladder?) as the lights dim.

The characters in this charade remain nebulous, and the concept itself seems to go nowhere -- there's neither suspense, development nor intensification, just one bit of shtick after another.

Rather oddly, no choreographic credit is assigned to "Waiters" in the printed program. The work was commissioned in 1988 by Baltimore's Theatre Project, and at the time the choreography was attributed to Beck and Nancy B. Hill, then assistant artistic director but apparently no longer with the troupe. The choreography for the shorter, earlier "Home," which opened the program, is credited to Beck. A duet for Beck, Schappell and two chairs presumably representing domiciles, it's marred by pretty much the same shortcomings as "Waiters" -- it's sporadically intriguing, but ultimately neither clear nor compelling enough to sustain its premise.