Molly, a grad student in molecular biology, and Elliot, a computer scientist, meet awkward.
They’re in a computer lab, one coming, the other going – but pretending not to be. It turns out they’re mutually attracted. But in Itamar Moses’ funny and heartbreaking Completeness, at Theatre Exile through Dec. 23, that’s just the beginning of a complicated story whose ending is necessarily indeterminate.
Moses’ cleverness has earned him comparisons to Tom Stoppard. (He won a 2018 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for The Band’s Visit, a more austere work.) Completeness, though it seems deeply felt, has passages of intellectual pyrotechnics reminiscent of Stoppard at his most arcane. Moses’ characters use their braininess and verbosity as both a defense against feeling and a means of seduction. But the scientific problems they’re investigating also serve as metaphors for their romantic troubles, and ours.
Exile’s production – directed with tenderness and humor by Matt Pfeiffer – is the first staging of a rewritten version of the play, a quasi-world premiere. I saw Completeness Off-Broadway in 2011, and this production, a swift 95 minutes, moved me in a way the earlier one, at Playwrights Horizons, didn’t – though I can’t say exactly why.
Certainly, the two leads, both past recipients of the F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Artist, have a rapport that manages to be at once sweet and uneasy. Mary Tuomanen’s Molly, investigating protein interactions in yeast, is swamped with “noisy” data that James Ijames’ Elliot may help her clarify via a computer algorithm. But can she subdue his commitment fears – that “nagging discomfort” that devolves into “overwhelming dread”? Can he surmount, or even understand, the traumatic residue of her previous breakup?
Elliot’s research interest is the Traveling Salesman Problem, a dauntingly difficult calculation of the most efficient route for travel among a series of cities. It’s related, metaphorically if not mathematically, to the more familiar Secretary Problem, which involves selecting the optimal job candidate (or romantic partner) from a large pool as quickly as possible when the quality of future candidates is unknown. Both problems are about decision-making amid a surfeit of choices.
That’s the dilemma at the heart of Completeness. When the action begins, Elliot is dating a fellow computer-science grad student, Lauren (Claire Inie-Richards), who epitomizes indecisiveness – and the mysteries of the female psyche. (Elliot: “So you’re mad that I’m not in bed and then you’re mad that I am in bed and now you’re mad that I got out of bed?” Lauren: “No, I’m mad that you didn’t stay in bed and make me feel better.”)
Molly’s been entangled with her academic adviser, Don (Justin Rose), a messy #MeToo situation whose unraveling threatens to undermine her academic career. Rose and Inie-Richards, both excellent, also play future love interests as Completeness descends into romantic entropy.
Colin McIlvaine’s set, evocative of white stained glass, converts into both student apartments and university offices. Alyssandra Docherty’s lighting and Michael Kiley’s sound design suggest otherworldliness, while a meta-theatrical stunt sows unnecessary confusion. In the end, Completeness gestures toward a satisfying resolution — without underestimating the thorny uncertainties of love.
Through Dec. 23 by Theatre Exile at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. Tickets: $10-$50. Information: 215-218-4022, theatreexile.org.