COMPLETENESS (Theatre Exile): Algorithms and geek romance

Theatre Exile completeness theater review
Mary Tuomanen and James Ijames in COMPLETENESS. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Two grad students meet in a computer lab and begin to hang out. Tech-savvy Elliot (James Ijames) is an algorithm guy who can lay impressive computer science talk on Molly (Mary Tuomanen), a smart and kind of weird molecular biologist. It’s seduction by examples of computational intractability.

The leads in Theatre Exile’s production (both playwrights and both actors at the top of their game) are well cast.Mary Tuomanen can do foxy nerd Molly to a turn. And James Ijames as Elliot is more loose and playful than I’ve ever seen him. (Check out Ijames in the December 2 issue of The New York Times Style Magazine.) It’s a shame to see talent like theirs in a play that cannot be made to work in its current form, but it’s a pleasure to watch them try.

The significance of Itamar Moses’s title, COMPLETENESS, eludes. I checked out NP Completeness on “Informally, NP is a set of decision problems which can be solved by a polynomial time via a ‘Lucky Algorithm’, a magical algorithm that always makes a right guess among the given set of choices. NP Complete problems are problems whose status is unknown.”  So. There you have it.

Scientific concepts ride on the top and romantic inclinations ride under them. Elliot is concerned about the classic Traveling Salesman Problem, a problem of the NP Complete type, which calculates the efficiency of multiple path choices. It’s a quandary. Like the choice of who to love? Molly examines protein-protein interaction in yeast. She says they’re bait and prey. Like people who are dating?


Completeness Theatre Exile
James Ijames with Claire Inie Richards. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Elliot’s and Molly’s conversations, which have been full of long explanations of their work (especially his work), move into an analysis of their relationship. Intellectuals in love, or at least in ‘like’, they exchange meticulous amusing couples’ dialogue. Although heady, familiar, and excruciatingly specific, what they are communicating isn’t crystal clear. Comically over-analytical, they apply scientific rules to matters of the heart, like it’s an experiment that has never worked, laying the groundwork for why it won’t work now. He’s game and she’s unromantically matter-of-fact about sex. These two are serial romancers, despite Molly’s disclaimer, “I don’t usually do this.” Both have (or just had) significant others. Don (Justin Rose), a professor, is Molly’s boyfriend. And graduate student Lauren (Claire Inie-Richards) has been going with Elliot. Will Molly and Elliot over-analyze themselves out of their new relationship?

Matt Pfeiffer provides informed direction. He directed the play in LA in 2014, and he does a good turn here, as good as can be done for a work that still needs work to find completeness.  I imagine a technical verbiage-heavy play is not an easy thing to parse and keep rolling. Blessedly, there’s no ‘kitchen sink realism’ in the set design. A model of set engineering with clean, stylish functionality and improbable versatility, Colin McIlvaine’s pristine, white built-in set [an adaptation of a Darcy Scanlon design], is a star of the show.

At some point a pretend glitch on stage requires a long, awkward pause. Is this head-scratcher interlude meant to include us, the audience, in an NP Complete problem? And then the way stuff piles up at the end makes for an unlikely theatrical coda that comments on the proceedings. Even with all the tech-science-talk deliberately and liberally lavished and layered on top, this show doesn’t remind me of science plays like Copenhagen or Heisenberg, but leaves faint traces of old Rom-Coms in the back of my head, like maybe Love Actually or Barefoot in the Park.

Even with humor, good acting and direction this is a cumbersome work by its very nature, but I like seeing Exile tackle this kind of difficult play. It’s right down their street.

[Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake] November 29 – December 23, 2018

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