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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper


Or: Love, Arithmetically

The base formula is classic. Boy meets Girl in a university computer lab. Elliot (Matt Holzfeind) is a computer science post-graduate trying to figure out the Algorithm of Completeness (the CS equivalent of the God Particle). Molly (Kristina Valada-Viars) is a first year micro-biologist fishing in the vast and trackless ocean of human proteins (think of the work of Dr. Connors in The Amazing Spider-man, before he got all sidetracked and scaly). Both are slightly looney and emotionally damaged. They fornicate, fall in love (not necessarily in that order), deal with the poisonous trace elements of their past romances (Rae Gray and Andrew Jessup) and together stumble upon a possible solution to the Traveling Salesmen Problem, the universal limitation that stymies progress in both their fields (don’t worry, it gets explained). Sounds simple, aye? But take that basic formula and give it to Itamar Moses. Two hours later you will find yourself faced with something so complex and beautiful and True, you won’t want to take your attention from the stage for one second, not even to pick your jaw up off your knees and reattach it.

In the program interview, Moses claims to have a “steel trap memory for moments of dialog, especially if something has an emotional impact at the time”. He is not exaggerating. The vernacular and style of Molly, Elliot and their peers are, “yeah no” for “yeah no”, the same speech you will find in the halls of Universities all over this country. It is the voice of diamond intellects cutting themselves on their own sharpness, because they understand so much and yet don’t know how to use that knowledge and, for the life of them, cannot spit out what’s in their hearts. Moses takes this modern pulse and makes it jump through all the hoops of well written play: irony, heart tugging appeals, call backs (oh, what snapping call backs), metaphors, jokes both for and at the expense of the characters, and everything else you care to think of.

He also gives us great blocks of science and gives it all twists and turns and gripping power of “To be or not to be”. This isn’t the socially acceptable kind of science either (where you bring dinosaurs back and cause it them to explode), but the dull, longwinded and vital science that turns wheels in the dark and makes our world what it is. You might not catch every argument but these texts are delivered by people to whom such questions mean life or death. Indeed the only really confusing monologs are when Molly and Elliot try to find their bearings on the bitter sea of human relations. Oh, and for the more genteel audience member, be warned that there is full frontal (and full rear for that matter) nudity. But it is dealt with in half darkness, and if you focus slightly above the actors heads the compromising anatomy yields its normally electric presence to odd romance of the scene.

Theater Wit, under Jeremy Wechler, has taken all this shining fresh mined gem and set it in the perfect ring. Every aspiring lighting and set designer in the city and beyond should make the time to see the stage created by Schermoly, illuminated by Rourke and brought to life by Stanfill. The sterile white world of computer screens, or possibly white boards, unfolds itself into homy spaces whilst displays of LED and video brilliance trace the arc of the play and the turmoils of its inhabitants. It is a wonder the complexity of the light, video and hydraulics does not fry the board every night,

The set sometimes proves as poetic as the lines themselves: the center “unification” light holds all the symbolic power of the Green Light in the Great Gatsby, and there are more hidden treasures to be found if you look close enough.

Yet as one scientist archly remarks “Nothing can replace a person in a room, doing the legwork” And oh, what people and Oh! what leg work! Holzfeind’s Elliot is a remarkably, and rare authentic creation. His entire character is based off of impulse (the play begins with one lightly deceptive snap decision and leads on from there). He is forever percussing his hands and feet, creating finger fireworks as he types, conducting the flow of an algorithm, stepping into childlike honesty and equally childlike cruelty with an ease that baffles. It is both a torturous delight and a delightful torture to watch his conversation trip over itself and cram his metaphorical foot into his metaphorical mouth. And he does all this without falling into the stereotype of the “Adorkable” sitcom hero. Elliot is human, first to last.

And yet, even Holzfiend’s no doubt painfully constructed physical and verbal outbursts are matched by Valada-Viars’s Molly. To put it simply she is the queen of gesture. Great performance comes from recognition, recognition comes from repetition, and repetition gains its power from small but infinite variety. Molly’s “habitual” gestures: an absentminded tracing of the collarbone, a playful curl of the toes, a habit of touching her nose, ála charades, when someone grasps her point, are filled with a wealth of meaning depending on the line or expression or even silence. If you can follow them they will break your heart and knit it back together again in the space of a second, telling a story that not even the finest of words can capture. All the while their composer meets and melds perfectly with her scene partner and travels down some dark roads of her own.

These two highly learned and hardworking artists are nicely met, complimented and challenged by a host of ghosts of lovers past, present and, possibly, future. Rae Gray did not make an appearance on the night I saw the play, so we got to enjoy the paces of understudy Alee Spadoni, who went through the tenderness, nervousness and fury of Elliot’s varied girlfriends with a will. Like Holzfeind she is a master hand at interpreting the jolted, searching ‘youthspeak’, but needs a few more performances in order to fully illuminate her character’s leaps in logic, though she regains and wrings our sympathy once the leap has been made. Jessup, in roles ranging from a rakish stuffed-shirt to an enthusiastic admirer, needs no more practice at letting us follow his train of thought, and could surpass even his co-actor in the foot-in-mouth olympics. Both he and Spadoni remind us that love, in this day and age, is a muddled business and even the truest of heart’s affections can be supplanted or strained by something and someone nearly good enough.

I strode forth from Completeness feeling almost, well, complete. Not only had I been treated to a complex and beautiful story of love in our times, but I had also been thoroughly educated in the wonders of the universe, the timeless struggles of the heart (and associated anatomy), and the lengths to which actors and designers will go to raise their art another notch (or ten) and give us all the gift of their time, talent and attention.

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