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Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Theatre Exile
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Mary Tuomanen and James Ijames
Photo by Paola Nogueras
In a deliciously awkward moment of foreplay, Elliot asks Molly why all girls proclaim "I never do this" before sex. Molly's outraged expression is not surprising, but the academic tone of the discussion that follows is unexpected and entertaining. Elliot seems genuinely confounded: Either I am the most attractive man on Earth or all these women are lying. Molly's response is equally earnest but more quick witted: Only women who have already decided to sleep with you would bother to say that, so your sample population is skewed toward women who find you sexually attractive. The light bulb goes off in Elliot's head, "I made a derivative error!" and the complicated march toward coitus resumes.

Playwright Itamar Moses's ability to seamlessly blend razor-sharp dialogue, scientific perspicacity, and the convoluted intricacies of romance is on full display in this newly rewritten version of Completeness, currently being presented by Theatre Exile. Molly (Mary Tuomanen) is a molecular biology graduate student burdened by a heartbreak she cannot get over. When she meets Elliot (James Ijames), a computer science graduate student with a serious fear of commitment, sparks fly and conversations sound like TED talks. Matt Pfeiffer's quick-paced direction keeps the tensions running high for most of the play. The always impressive Tuomanen is authentic and engaging as Molly. Ijames is appropriately infuriating as obviously intelligent but socially oblivious Elliot. Claire Inie-Richards and Justin Rose are excellent as several jilted lovers and in one meta-theatric scene where they break the third wall to interact directly with the audience. Unfortunately, a couple of significant problems with Moses's script means that Completeness ends up being something less than the sum of its impressive parts.

Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field of science that uses computer science, mathematics and statistics to analyze and interpret biological data. The actual process of analyzing and interpreting such data is computational biology. Given the increasing importance of computational biology over the last few decades, it is difficult to believe a computer science graduate student would not be familiar with the field. Given the rapid developments in genomic and other molecular research techniques in that time, it seems impossible that a molecular biology student—particularly one studying new protein strands—would not know about bioinformatics. And yet Molly, Elliot, and their professors speak as though they are inventing a new field of science. Even if you do not know anything about computer science or biology, the suggestion that there is some novelty in using an algorithm to analyze a large data set is cringe inducing.

Of course, all the talk of classic computer science problems and biological research is just fodder for witty banter and an analogy for the complexities of forming and maintaining relationships. Perhaps we can overlook the technical issues and focus on the relationship at the heart of the play? This brings us to the second problem with Moses's story. By about an hour in, it is clear that both Molly and Elliot are selfish jerks. Smart, interesting, and sexy selfish jerks, but it is still hard to sympathize. Both are unable to seriously commit to a relationship, but instead of reveling in the availability of casual encounters a university provides, they agonize about their situation and leave a trail of broken hearts behind them. Watching Molly and Elliot repeatedly, thoughtlessly hurt others in an attempt to resolve their own issues takes all the fun out of the whole affair. By the end I really did not care what happened to either of them.

Even with an updated script, Completeness ends up feeling a bit incomplete. The excellent dialogue and first-rate acting may not be enough to fix the play's more serious issues, but it is a treat to watch Tuomanen and Ijames engage in the most authentic yet intellectually rigorous pillow talk ever.

Theatre Exile's Completeness, through December 23, 2018, at The Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia PA. Tickets are available at Theatre Exile's box office by calling 215-218-4022; visiting; coming to the Theatre Exile Administrative Office, located at 2329 S. 3rd Street on the third floor; or arriving to the box office for Completeness an hour before each performance.

James Ijames as Elliot
Mary Tuomanen as Molly
Claire Inie-Richards as Lauren/Nell/ et al.
Justin Rose as Don/Franklin/et al.

Director: Matt Pfeiffer
Set Designer: Darcy Scanlin
Associate Set Designer Colin McIIvaine
Costumer Designer: Alison Roberts
Lighting Designer: Alyssandra Docherty
Sound Designer: Mike Kiley
Props Master: Shaelyn Weatherup
Stage Manager: Brian V. Klinger