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Theater review: 'Completeness' at South Coast Repertory

April 28, 2011 |  2:45 pm

Completenes first
 Plot is the treacherous shoal upon which playwrights sink their shiny new ships. One of the points of fascination with play-going lies in observing how a writer avoids a crash or survives the aftermath of a full or partial wreck.

Itamar Moses threatens to abandon his vessel toward the end of his latest dramatic expedition, which carries the title “Completeness,” though “Incompleteness” is more like it. The work, having its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in a snazzy production directed by Pam MacKinnon, aspires to be a brainy romantic comedy, but lacking natural motion it finds itself dangerously adrift on its own overtaxed cleverness.

Revolving around the staccato love affair of two graduate students in different scientific disciplines, the play has its thesis worked out from the start: Romance is impossible to rationally sort out, because each new person who enters your life exponentially increases the number of possible narrative paths your future could take. This is a compelling idea, and Moses persuasively sketches with a sharply humorous exactitude the kind of theory-chomping academics who would be consumed with such a notion. But an analogy is not an action, and the play gets bogged down in confirming its own sleek formula.

Completeness second The meet-cute is appropriately dorky. Elliot (Karl Miller), a nice-looking yet awkward computer science geek, chats up Molly (Mandy Siegfried), a molecular biology waif, as she checks her email at a public computer station. (Christopher Barreca’s scenic design lends a modern touch to locales that are too functional to be picturesque.) Molly seems indifferent to the stumbling charms of this skinny, knapsack-toting Romeo until she hears about his computer expertise. She’s working on a project with yeast cultures, and Elliot promises he can come up with an algorithm to sift through her voluminous data.

Moses, whose reputation-launching play “Bach at Leipzig” was produced at SCR, maps out the narrow, backstabbing, emotionally underdeveloped world of graduate school with the familiarity of someone who not too long ago proudly hung his MFA diploma on the wall. He’s particularly good at capturing the shame and resentment of characters fated to keep running into each other at the library after their disquieting breakups. Departmental jockeying for prestige is bad enough, but interdepartmental dating woes are even worse, as adroitly illustrated by Brooke Bloom and Johnathan McClain, both of whom play (among other characters) the sloughed-off and still-grumbling exes of the play’s opportunistic couple.

Listening to Elliot and Molly negotiate their conflicted feelings about intimacy and commitment, one is immediately struck by the discrepancy between their high IQs and their remedial interpersonal skills. Their manipulative banter is as transparent as their tactics for evading guilt. Moses has a gift for behavioral realism — the passive-aggressive loop of language provokes much chuckling recognition from the audience — but the scope of vision starts to seem claustrophobic after a while. Can’t the playwright find more expansive terrain for his intensive anthropological scrutiny? “Completeness” asks us to undergo the internecine pain of an advanced degree without bestowing the paradigm-shifting enlightenment that’s supposed to go with it.

Mind you, it’s always a joy to see callow smarty-pants given a lesson in humility. (There’s nothing like the egomania of graduate students, whose limitless vistas, personal as well as professional, haven’t yet had to confront the hard facts of adult necessity.) And of course sexual relationships — frolicsomely portrayed here with discreet nudity — can provide a rich ground for psychological discovery. But “Completeness” has the obsessive, mountain-out-of-a-molehill insularity of a young man’s play, and the bizarre injection of a fourth-wall-breaking theatrical device, which shouldn’t be disclosed beforehand but is pretty hard to justify afterward, doesn’t let in much air.

Still, the unforced naturalism of the cast tantalizes for solid stretches. MacKinnon, a resourceful director who seems to specialize in stubbornly undramatic new writing (her track record includes, in addition to Moses, Bruce Norris, Richard Greenberg and Gina Gionfriddo), confidently navigates the navel-gazing of characters who prefer frenetic conjecture to acceptance of the cramped moment.

Few if any false notes are struck. But there’s something stunted in the range of experience. This play about young scientists in love is too small and shallow to support universal claims.

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

“Completeness,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.  7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Ends May 8.  (Call for exceptions.) $28-$66.  (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours. 

Photos: Top: (Left to right) Brooke Bloom and Karl Miller; Mandy Siegfried and Johnathan McClain. Bottom: Miller and Siegfried. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times