Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Modern Love Among the Scientific Set

Aubrey Dollar and Karl Miller "meet cute" in grad school

Relationships are complicated.

This is true whether the relationships are between two yeast molecules or two human beings. 

That’s sort of the message of Completeness, Itamar Moses’s new play that is alternately romantic, comic, intellectually intriguing, and, occasionally, too clever for its own good. 

Completeness, now on view at Playwrights Horizons, begins as two attractive and bright graduate students—she a molecular biologist, he a computer scientist—meet cute in a computer lab on campus and begin a hot romance that mirrors the work they are doing both individually and collectively.

Karl Miller, a fine young actor full of goofy charm, is Elliot, the computer scientist whose short-term goal is to crack the “Traveling Salesman Problem,” the elusive holy grail of his field.  (It’s real; look it up and you’ll learn, among other things, that it is “an NP-hard problem in combinatorial optimization.”) 

As soon as he eyes Molly, winningly played by Aubrey Dollar, you can almost hear Elliot’s heart (among other parts of his anatomy) go “boing,” In order to hook up with her, Elliot gladly sets aside his maybe-not-so-urgent-after-all work and offers to help her devise a shortcut to study potentially significant interactions among yeast molecules.  For her, he will develop an algorithm or computer model that will save her the trouble of examining each and every interaction, by identifying those that are likely to produce the kinds of results worthy of her efforts.

As you can see, neither Elliot nor Molly considers the old painstaking methods of their fields to be worth their time.  “Life is short” is their credo, which they apply equally to scientific studies and to personal matters.

Because Elliot and Molly make such a lovely couple, in the way that we have come to expect from exposure to too many on-screen romantic comedies, we do expect them to somehow evolve into some modern day version of Marie and Pierre Curie.  But life rarely imitates the movies, and we learn quickly enough to set aside such fantasies for the reality of modern romance, consisting of speed dating and short-term relationships. 

Thus it is with Elliot and Molly.   They are like the fruit flies that geneticists like to study because they play out their lives in about a month.   On human terms it looks like this:  meet someone, take up with them, edge toward the possibility of something more permanent, and then end it—and begin again. 

In between, we learn an awful lot about both computer science and molecular biology.  The playwright has done a masterful job of explaining the science (data mining and derivation errors, anyone?), and the actors have done a terrific job of learning to spout the complicated lingo so that it sounds second nature to them. 

If the juxtapositioning of conceptual science and human foibles reminds you of something Tom Stoppard might have cooked up, it’s not a coincidence.  Itamar Moses and Mr. Stoppard have a bit of a mutual admiration society going, and the latter even wrote the preface for the published edition of Moses’s earlier Bach at Leipzig.  The scientific conversations in Completeness are very reminiscent of the discussions about mathematics in Stoppard’s Arcadia and about quantum physics in Hapgood.   There are worse role models for Mr. Moses to have, though one hopes he will eventually find his own unique voice. 

Lest I leave you with the impression that Completeness is a two-character play, I hasten to add that there are actually several others, various former or waiting-in-the-wings partners of Molly and Elliot, all portrayed by Brian Avers and Meredith Forlenza.  Whether it is the fault of the playwright or of the director, Pam MacKinnon (she has directed a production of Bach at Leipzig, so Moses is not new to her), it is very difficult to differentiate among the other characters who flit in and out—though perhaps they are intentionally non-distinguishable. 

There is also a bit of breaking of the fourth wall that doesn’t seem to serve much purpose, except, possibly, to remind us that science allows us to control things just so much, but that life is ultimately unpredictable in its variability.

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