All during Itamar Moses’s Completeness (Playwrights Horizons), I couldn’t help thinking of Jules Feiffer, the Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist who spent decades serving up a weekly delight to the readers of this paper. The contemporary neurasthenias, political and personal, that other artists struggled to pin down in novels, plays, or films, Feiffer could nail instantly in eight panels of sharp-edged ink drawing with sharp-edged words to match. When he himself tried those larger forms, even he couldn’t top the exactitude that he achieved, week after week, in his quarter-page below the Voice‘s Letters column; in those eight panels, he was Vermeer. Every buzzword, every shibboleth, every self-doubt, self-deceit, or evasion that could stress out an educated American in the latter half of the 20th century received its true comic evisceration in a Feiffer cartoon.
Because Feiffer’s characters struggle eternally against the ongoing encroachment of human life by machines, they came inevitably to mind when Completeness showed boy (Karl Miller) meeting girl (Aubrey Dollar) by offering to construct a data-mining algorithm for her protein-matching experiment. Although they’re both in the same room, he confirms the arrangement by sending her an e-mail. Bernard Mergendeiler, the nebbishy hero of countless early Feiffer cartoons, would have done no less had he ever encountered the Internet.
Completeness‘s boy and girl, named Elliot and Molly, are both grad students, he in computer science and she in molecular biology. Each, bearing a history of bad break ups, is stuck in an increasingly uncomfortable affair, both with partners in their respective departments. Elliot’s current flame (Meredith Forlenza), a female classmate, gives off hints of the nesting impulse that often provokes jumpy young men to head for the door. Molly’s resident beau (Brian Avers), an older grad student showing ominous signs of possessiveness, complicates the situation by being her adviser.
It takes some maneuvering for Elliot and Molly to disentangle themselves from these messy relationships in order to start what of course turns out to be a new troubled entanglement. Although Pam MacKinnon’s smartly staged production leavens the situation with hopeful possibilities, today’s theater economics show you what’s coming all too clearly: Forlenza and Avers double as two other students who appear, late in the game, to strike exactly the spark in Elliot and Molly that they’ve started to feel they don’t get from each other. How does that old formula go? Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, but—well, your iPhone’s calculator app can do the math on this faster than I can.
Both the contrivances that split the characters and the lame evasions by which they attempt, unsuccessfully, to dodge confrontation are purest Feiffer, albeit with an electronic update. Moses handles them skillfully and often amusingly; the trouble is that his play signals itself, early on, as having barely more depth than an eight-panel cartoon, strung thinly across the most familiar matrix in light commercial comedy. He pads this out, to make a full evening, with jargon-laden explanations of Molly’s and Elliot’s experimental procedures. To be fair, he deploys these, too, proficiently: Each disquisition comes from the character’s immediate concerns, always carrying subtextual intentions for the actors to play.
Most elegantly, he makes these periodic gushes of data add up to a neat pair of metaphors for the overall situation. Which doesn’t mean, regrettably, that they add up to a play. Instead, the characters ultimately seem to have no more human depth than strands of genetic protein in a Petri dish or mathematical queries being tested against possible solutions in a computer program.
Behind the reductive scientific metaphors, it turns out, Moses is engaged in a kind of Gen Y special pleading. “This is just a terrible time in all our lives,” Molly tells Elliot, “and a terrible, terrible generation to be a part of.” Knowledge, you see, has advanced to where nothing old has meaning, but new rules to live by haven’t been discovered yet. With all due sympathy, what can one say except that many earlier generations have felt the same. Feiffer quintessentialized the feeling two generations back. The story’s old; only the technical jargon and MacKinnon’s bright young cast appear new.