It seems apt that the first scene of Itamar Moses’s “Completeness” includes a Millennial-flavored exchange that sets in motion the courtship between Molly and Elliot. Molly’s a molecular biologist and Elliot’s a computer scientist - both grad students — and Molly’s academic pursuit aligns with the intellectual territory of Elliot’s specialties. In order to help Molly’s yeast protein research, Elliot promises to help build an algorithm that will “clean” data that’s “noisy.” Is he doing this out of the kindness of his heart or because he clearly thinks Molly is cute?
With their phones in front of them, ready to exchange contact info, Elliot says he prefers email and fires off an immediate message, heralded by one of those swoosh sounds built into computer email software. It’s how we self-style our communications — we text before we call, we loathe actual phone calls, and don’t even get us started about voicemails. In an age of digitalism where algorithms are in control of our social media, our sponsored content, our candidates for swiping left and right, the ways we control who, what, and how we communicate with suitors says a lot about us as human beings.
And, to my surprise, “Completeness” is a kind of love story built into academic mire. And Theatre Exile’s production dazzled me last night with powerhouse performances from Mary Tuomanen (Molly) and James Ijames (Elliot) as directed by Matt Pfeiffer. Yes, there is some intellectual rigor at play here: there are long stretches of dialogue that detail biological theorems, mathematical uncertainties, sample sets, false equivalencies, and derivation errors. You don’t necessarily need technological know-how or scientific adroit to appreciate some of the themes Moses is mining here. Namely, what I honed in on is how “Completeness” explores the uncertainty of romance and love, asserting that no disciplined or theoretical framework can ever be very helpful in weighing lust and the impulse to want to be with someone you’ve just met (maybe even want to know everything about them).
Perhaps I’m an easy target because I do find it fun and sassy to explore departmental drama, inter-office affairs, and academes who stumble through life and love. Molly’s advisor (Justin Rose as Don) is also her outgoing lover and Elliot’s ex is another computer science grad student (Claire Inie-Richards as Lauren) — Molly and Elliot’s gravitation towards each other makes things a little awkward in the hallways of this never-specified fictional university. And Don’s spotlight voicemail moment is one of the most painful things I’ve experienced in recent memory. There were audible groans from the audience. But Don’s ham-handed response to rejection is spot on patriarchy.
Probably my favorite aspect of this production is the subject of never knowing, for sure, if opening up to someone is going to pay off. Both protagonists deliver gut-wrenching mini soliloquys to each other, in soft dark light and post-coital undress, relating their truths about fear of commitment, about pain they’ve tried to quiet, about anxieties they suffocate. Molly says it’s an act of “tricking” someone into thinking “I’m happy or good or fun to be around.” And the prospect of the “fear of knowing everything” about someone “eliminating the wanting” - the more you get to know someone, if you still want to be around them everyday, well that’s something isn’t it? “I will never be a clean slate,” she admits with sadness. “Let’s keep an eye on that,” they both say after they’ve laid their paranoias on the line.
If there are any areas of concern with this production, it’s two things: the excess of lingo and the breakdown of the fourth wall. It’s nice to feel smart if you can keep up, but at moments it feels like posturing by Moses. The Traveling Salesman Problem lays at the crux of this play’s romantic tension but, while it works in theory, doesn’t stick as a takeaway idea. TSP is the idea that a travelling salesman has an endless amount of paths that she can take between cities or destinations and that, as paths pile up, gets more and more complex to navigate in an ideal way, the most energy and time-efficient way. Say you’re going to three places in Philadelphia — it’s probably pretty easy to come up with your three directional moves — but what about if you make it six or seven? Now apply that to romance. What’s an ideal path to your “the one”? Is it the quickest? I didn’t love the fourth wall breakdown and we’ll leave it at that.
I thought this play was extremely solid, a fascinating 95-minute experiment of the mind and heart. And buried in all of the language that can be off-putting and vocabulary that might seem alienating is a love story and the question that’s the best subject to explore — how do we find love and then keep it? A eureka moment of life, when you find someone to spend your life with, is the best kind of research and it doesn’t happen in classrooms or laboratories. Well, not usually.
"Completeness" runs through Dec. 23rd. Tickets are $37-$40 and can be found HERE.