That deadly theatrical form, the romcom, gets a jolt of life from Itamar Moses, taking a break from his TV writing chores (on “Boardwalk Empire” and “Men of a Certain Age”) to pen a romantic comedy that doesn’t turn the stomach or insult the intelligence. Although “Completeness” observes the standard conventions of a cute-couple comedy, Moses ascribes a contempo sensibility to his characters, grad-school scientists who hide their personal anxieties behind torrents of surprisingly lyrical nerd-speak. As played by two appealing leads, these kids are in good hands, but their romance has a hard time surviving an awkward second act.
The highly structured revolving set (by David Zinn) and the hi-tech design of the lighting (Russell H. Champa) and video projections (Rocco DiSanti) play a key role in that problematical second act, which makes a huge literal point about the way technology can both assist and impede human connections. But the only set pieces that count are the sterile computer cluster where Elliot (Karl Miller) and Molly (Aubrey Dollar) meet cute and the big warm bed where they dare to be human.
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Miller, a rare and true find who appears to have eluded the attention of the Hollywood studio talent bandits, is such a likable performer that Elliot, a computer science grad student at an undesignated university, wins our hearts before he even opens his mouth. The lovestruck lad is so socially tongue-tied and physically uncoordinated that Molly, the molecular biologist he’s been trying to pick up, has to come to his rescue by asking for help with an experiment that’s been throwing up data that is “sort of noisy and full of crap.”
Molly’s a charmer, but she’s also formidably smart and sure of herself, and Dollar gets extra credit for letting us see that fine intelligence along with her girlish insecurities.
So score two for helmer Pam MacKinnon (“Clybourne Park”), who also directed the play when it preemed at South Coast Rep. Actually, score four for this helmer, because Brian Avers and Meredith Forlenza are plenty of fun to watch as the various ex-lovers and would-be lovers who serve to make the plot look more complicated than it is.
Would that Moses had given these characters more to do in the second act, when Elliot and Molly have the big breakup that’s pretty much obligatory in romantic comedies. For some reason, the playwright neglected the mechanical plot engineering necessary to support some plausible dramatic complications for the breakup, which feels abrupt and insufficiently motivated.
In one respect, Elliot and Molly are no different from countless other lovers in countless other plays: They’re wary of commitment and want some assurances they won’t be hurt if they let down their guard.
But Moses poses this eternal question in an original and interesting way, by making it the nub of the biology science problem that Elliot tries to solve with the data-mining algorithm he programs for Molly. So when these articulate lovers enthusiastically speak (in streams of dense but strangely musical technical language) of brute force algorithms that can organize masses of possibilities into manageable, even predictable probabilities, they are actually calculating their own odds of being hurt.
The metaphors may not be on a par with the imagery in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but every generation speaks its own poetry and Moses seems to have the ear for it.