'Completeness'

Stints on the writing staffs of "Boardwalk Empire" and "Men of a Certain Age" have done Itamar Moses no apparent harm.

Stints on the writing staffs of “Boardwalk Empire” and “Men of a Certain Age” have done Itamar Moses no apparent harm. After dwelling in the men-only, lust-free situations of “Bach at Leipzig” and “The Four of Us,” he writes in “Completeness” for both genders — quite well, too — with an unexpectedly fine ear for contempo sexual politics’ dizzying conversational loops. Some characteristically self-conscious devices ultimately betray his discomfort with straightforward form, but if this work falls short of completeness it’s a step in the right direction.

Completeness

Our central grad students meet-cute in a computer lab, that 21st-century equivalent of the malt shoppe, though their real milieu is the lab of the human heart. Elliot (Karl Miller) is a computer scientist obsessed with famously unsolvable math riddles, Molly (Mandy Siegfried of “Grey’s Anatomy”) a brilliant microbiologist analyzing proteins in yeast cultures. And each, in the way of romantic comedy life, is coming off a bad relationship (with Brooke Bloom and Johnathan McClain, respectively) marked by mutual frustration: “You can make me happy.” “How?” “I don’t want to have to tell you.”

To ingratiate himself with Molly, Elliot volunteers to apply his data mining skills to her protein problems so as to calculate the most likely solutions, those achieving “satisfiability.” Before long, of course, it’s not just her data he’s mining, and satisfiability becomes more than an intellectual benchmark.

Moses persuades us he writes the way young people think. Algorithms — long, complex strings of if/then Q&A powering a computer program — find their way into torturous attempts to achieve certitude: “What if I can’t? What if that’s not her I want to like?” The kids write code, and speak in it too: “You’re great!” translates to “We’re breaking up,” and “OK” means “I’m astonished by what you just said but I will artificially agree to drop it and hope you’ll tell me what you meant.”

This generation’s technical savvy is so at odds with universal human awkwardness as to become particularly poignant. Here’s Elliot, marveling in today’s ubiquitous singsong expressive mode: “I just love this moment when you’re suddenly allowed to start … touching someone? Like, you’ve wanted to, but of course you can’t just walk up to someone and touch them, but then the membrane is broken, and you can? Like, I’ve been thinking about touching you? More or less since the first time I saw you?”

Helmer Pam MacKinnon steers the proceedings with grace and snap, aided by her warm, appealing cast and a production with South Coast Rep’s characteristic elegance, here redolent of cubicles and fluorescent illumination. Christopher Barreca’s set is as boxy and complex as a PowerPoint flowchart, lit for both verisimilitude and mood by Russell Champa.

Still and all, Moses can’t resist the pretentious metatheatrical gesture. A bunch of things start happening (got to remain very hinty here) which clearly tickle the author no end, but to which many spectators will react with all the delight of a computer freeze.

It’s as if the author found something disreputable, something just too facile, about setting up a charming situation and letting it play itself out in an unfussy way. The play eventually reboots itself but minus act one’s ease, which is clearly the author’s intent.

“Completeness” is never completely lacking in pleasures, but if you’re expecting an unbumpy romantic comedy ride, caveat emptor. And caveat scriptor, too: If a writer pulls the rug out from under his audience once too often, he may find them less willing to follow him down the carpet in the first place.

Completeness

South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa; 236 seats; $55 top

Production

A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in two acts by Itamar Moses. Directed by Pam MacKinnon.

Creative

Sets, Christopher Barreca; costumes, Sara Ryung Clement; lighting, Russell H. Champa; sound and original music, Bray Poor; stage manager, Jennifer Ellen Butler. Opened April 23, 2011. Reviewed April 24. Runs through May 8. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Elliot - Karl Miller
Molly - Mandy Siegfried
Don/Clark/Franklin - Johnathan McClain
Lauren/Katie/Nell - Brooke Bloom

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