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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Aubrey Dollar and Karl Miller.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

In his big-league debut in New York in 2005, Bach at Leipzig, Itamar Moses proved both his affection for Tom Stoppard and his unworthiness to walk in that master playwright's shoes. Moses's pseudo-intellectual musing on who would be the new organist at the Thomaskirche in 1722 was well intentioned but unsuccessful as drama, in part because Moses didn't know how to mate insight and brain-dead comedy the way he apparently wanted to. The good news about the latest homage to Stoppard we're seeing from him here, Completeness, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, is that it's both smarter, more focused, and more engaging than the other work. But despite Moses's most glaring efforts, it is still not worthy of comparison to Stoppard's works, something that becomes increasingly obvious—and grating—as the evening progresses.

Moses's setup, in fact, could be something out of an early draft of Arcadia. Graduate students Elliot (Karl Miller) and Molly (Aubrey Dollar) meet in a computer lab on campus and are instantly taken with each other's looks and brains. Molly's a biologist working on a yeast experiment about protein-protein reactions and needs a speedier way to sort through piles of data to determine the conclusions that will most help her move on to the next step of her research. Elliot, a computer scientist, is sure he can devise exactly the algorithm that will solve her problem, and does. It is, of course, only a matter of time until their being in bed professionally means they're in bed personally, and over the course of the semester that follows we see how their lives are as governed by the formulae they're investigating as is the natural universe both are struggling to understand through their work.

Comparing the mating of two branches of science with the union of two people who are united by their, well, nerdiness (though, in terms of relationships and societal functionality, both are well adjusted) is a brilliant idea. Throughout the first act, it's cannily executed, without a hint of condescension, and Moses finds unique and economic ways to link the competing halves of his exploration. Elliot and Molly's foreplay becomes an in-depth discussion of species individuation, for example, and their afterglow consists of lusty romps through the Traveling Salesman Problem. Yet because of their confidence in themselves, in each other, and the ideas that energize them, theirs is an effective and engaging romance even if you've never heard of the Theory of NP-Completion. And as long as the focus is on their common goals and common interests, Completeness is bewitching.

Much of this is due to the writing, which is sharp when it's on point, and Pam MacKinnon's breathless direction keeps both you and the characters on their toes. Miller crafts a geekishly endearing portrait of Comp-Sci coolness, and Dollar finds a surprising amount of sensual spunk in a role that would inspire lesser actresses to create a straitlaced stereotype. Meredith Forlenza, who plays Karl's spurned girlfriend Lauren, is saucy and sexy as well, and a delight as the Other Woman who doesn't yet know for sure she is.

Little of this, however, hangs on much past intermission. In showing the ultimate extensions of their emotional and scientific philosophies, he's trying to yank Elliot and Molly into the furthest and most terrifying reaches they're exploring. But because the relationship conundrums they're working out with each other are not exactly dazzlingly deep or plotted, they start to feel much more microscopic when they're examined too closely. And because Forlenza and Brian Avers, who plays two of Molly's competing intimate and instructional interests, devolve into near-total caricature as well, the boundaries of believability crash even more quickly.

What's worse is that Moses gets too clever for his own good by introducing new concepts and instances of meta-theatricality that muddy the waters rather than purify them. His equating Elliot's and Molly's behavior with the other's by literally flopping their roles is bad enough. But the low point occurs in the penultimate scene, which is one of the most heavy-handed attempts at upending the dramatic chess board I've ever seen onstage. I won't describe it here, except to say that it involves David Zinn's complex university set, Russell H. Champa's lights, and Rocco DiSanti's projections, and is so transparent that even the actors and stagehands required to execute it display the glazed expressions and sing-songy voices that telegraph how little they buy it. Moses's desire to align the real and the fictional worlds is understandable, but he ends up cheapening both in the process.

Stoppard can get away with this kind of thing—indeed, it's a major function of Arcadia—for two reasons. First, because he builds up to it; Moses just drops it in. More important is that Stoppard imparts more definitive authority into his characters and dialogue. They speak with a firmness that lets their feelings roam free, sometimes in conjunction with what they're saying and sometimes not, but always bearing a fortitude that informs the play that surrounds them. Elliot and Molly hedge, interrupt, backtrack, and outright ramble so often you never have time to lose yourself in their words. Yes, they're young, but they're drawn as neither stupid, introverted, nor inarticulate, which makes their inabilities to connect thoughts play as a function of the playwright's fumbling with mechanics rather than his creations with their own confused souls.

The sheer audacity and variety of these interactions keeps Act I afloat, but Moses never lets the growth or payoff happen that would make the play as a whole succeed. As a result, Completeness seems, yes, incomplete. As Moses proved in his plays The Four of Us and Back Back Back, he wields a fascinating voice of his own when he's not standing in a more distinct scribe's shadow; his developing it further would benefit all of his work, not just "tributes" like this one. Moses reportedly began work on this play long ago, and only recently finished it; if that's so, he shouldn't be afraid to continue the process of discovering who these people are and what they're looking for. There's the sketch of a beautiful, human love story here, but it's one in desperate need of shading, color, and conviction.

Through September 25
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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