The first and most important question — in science, in love, in art — is, Are you asking the right question? I think Itamar Moses is, even when it takes him a bit too long to ask it. His new play, Completeness, a romantic dramedy about hot interdisciplinary love between two awkward grad students (played to mumblecore-Stoppard perfection by Aubrey Dollar and Karl Miller), is probably one act longer than it needs to be, and some of his literary metaphysics take place at an orbit of abstraction so rarefied, his principals have to make frequent (often half-dressed) trips to the dry-erase board. (This, after all, is a play where phrases like “the total human interactome” and “polynomial time” are thrown around with slangy abandon, even as characters doff their clothes and hop into bed.) But our attention and interest almost never flag, even when the will-this-be-on-the-quiz jitters set in. Moses is clearly in control of his metaphors, and he and his extraordinarily composed actors keeps the basics in view: Molly (Dollar), an emotionally jerky molecular biologist, deals in sticky, yeasty realities, but her data are soft and ambiguous. Meanwhile, Elliot (Miller), a computer-science guy, is all about heuristics, models, data-mining — finding nice, clean shortcuts through piles of junk information while ruthlessly screening out anything that doesn’t conform to his standards of rationality. Both have trouble with commitment and (despite the extreme granularity of their hyperwitty discourse) with communication, surprise-surprise, but both continue to believe there’s order in chaos, for those clever enough to find it, if they can just rule out the false positives. Problem is, their budding relationship (as well as their collaboration on a potential breakthrough project) might be one of those false positives.
Don’t tune out just yet: Moses (who more or less announced himself as a playwright of serious ambition with the fussy but funny Bach at Leipzig) has Aaron Sorkin’s ear, and his gift for sorting Big Ideas into witty epigrams and human-scale exchanges. With Completeness, he succumbs a bit to his completist leanings and maximalist urges, and indulges himself in a metatheatrical stunt that’s beneath him. But he ultimately makes what he wanted to: a brash and brainy but ultimately honest and body-temperature portrait of (as Molly puts it) “a terrible time in all our lives, and a terrible, terrible generation to be a part of,” a whole demographic doomed “to know just enough to know that this stuff never works, but not enough to know what the fuck we’re supposed to do about it.” Every generation has likely had the same complaint, of course, but Completeness makes a compelling case for its own uniqueness and that of its characters. In both form and content, this is a piece about striving to separate life’s scant signal from its plentiful noise, while strongly suspecting, all the while, that there’s no signal to find. It’s about faith and data, in an OKCupid world where the former is as scarce as the latter are overabundant. I won’t say which one triumphs, but, as anyone who’s ever loved a nerd can tell you, even hyperrational types indulge fantasies. They just call them “best-guess models.”
Speaking of lost generations: The Select (The Sun Also Rises) returns the excellent Elevator Repair Service theater troupe to the stage. Last year, they brought Gatz, their epic, daylong reading/staging/hallucination/remix of The Great Gatsby, to the Public, where it met with unstinting and well-deserved acclaim. Now the object of their recitation is Hemingway’s seminal ode to modern rudderlessness, the story of a wounded journalist named Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson, our de facto narrator) and his booze-soaked misadventures in Paris and Pamplona with a klatch of fellow alcoholic expats, dilettantes, writers manque, and assorted hangers-on. Trout is fished for and bulls are fought with: This is Papa’s Ur-text, a booked worked so deeply into our culture, it’s no longer even Hemingway — it’s Hemingwayesque. As with Gatz, ERS is looking to unpack literary Scripture a bit and free up the living characters inside, applying their signature blend of expert clowning, exquisitely designed sound effects, brilliantly staged bits of organized anarchy, and ingenious time-smearing collages. It’s all there in The Select (the name of the café whose orbit Jake and his familiars can’t seem to escape): fish fly, Muppet-style; wine bottles spin and plastic glasses “shatter” on cue, as sound and fury detach and recouple with playful elan. Pete Simpson, as Mike, the evening’s most dangerous sot, is riveting, a treacherous presence every time he’s onstage, and small, striking turns by Frank Boyd and Vin Knight leave little cigarette burns on your brain’s upholstery for days to come.
But this time around, I can’t honestly say I connected with the ERS approach, in toto. Director John Collins has said that this time, he was seeking the play inside the book. But what the company has found — after the redactions and elisions and general lah-de-dahness about the story’s submerged emotional content — is rather less than what he began with. In The Select, theatrical stunt work and sleight of hand look like … theatrical stunt work and sleight of hand. Jake himself, played at arm’s length by Iveson, feels like he isn’t a character in his own story, and not just because he was gelded, literally and metaphorically, by the Great War. There’s no visible wound, nor an invisible one that I could sense. Nor do we really feel him projecting his frustrations onto his romantic rival and fellow exile, the haplessly half-assimilated Princeton Jew Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney), nor even pining for his physically inaccessible inamorata, the pixie-cut lush and compulsive bed-hopper Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor). He’s just sort of there. It’s no inconvenience for him, but he’s not going to go out of his way to feel anything in front of you, either. I felt more hosted than compelled. Impressed, yes. Ravished, or even simply involved? Never, I’m afraid.
Like Gatz, The Select is set in a kind of temporal eddy, a café that’s not really a café but a temporary space that’s been made to look like one. But where Gatz felt like All Time (now, then, whenever), The Select is a neverland. What’s missing is the one thing that can’t be deconstructed out of The Sun Also Rises without incurring dire consequences: anxiety. These shadows enact their story in an Age of the Empty Play. In the end, I felt like I’d spent three hours in a half-finished hipster bar that hadn’t quite lived up to the hype. And no Big Buck Hunter in the corner? Papa would be displeased.
In their European gaddings about, Jake Barnes and his merry men never make it to Lapsburgh, a fictional ex-Bloc crapublic that shares borders with Mepos, Zembla, and whatever part of Russia Yakov Smirnoff comes from. A pity, because it’s their kind of place: plenty of booze, a little violence, and some cracked romance — not to mention triple helpings of anxiety. (And iceberg lettuce.) We travel there courtesy of the Berserker Residents, a group of couch-cushion fantasists who incorporate childlike play into their childlike shows, and make up in avid silliness what they lack in actual material. The Lapsburgh Layover is a goofy little cabaret set in some Carpathian backwater; we, of the audience, await our connection, while the quirky residents of this war-torn country attempt to entertain us with a murder-mystery dinner. Hard-boiled clichés, filtered through broken English, ensue, along with a lot of funny bad drag, costume-switching, and — inevitably — some unscripted carnage. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before on a comedy stage or in cabaret, but the company has the comic chops and technical skill to elevate it that crucial half-notch above sketch.
Crossing oceans and genres, we arrive in the strangest, least definable, most treacherous territory of all: upstate New York. This is Sweet and Sad, the second in Richard Nelson’s three-part series of “disposable plays” about the Apple Family, a clan of fractious old-time liberals who periodically come together in Rhinebeck for a meal and some arguing. Nelson introduced the Apples last year with That Hopey Changey Thing, a play set on the eve of the 2010 elections. (It opened on Election Night.) Sweet takes place on 9/11/11, against the backdrop of memorials and remembrances. The play, like its predecessor, is about remembering: forced remembering, false remembering, willful and unbidden un-remembering. At the table, once again, is Benjamin (Jon DeVries), an aging actor afflicted with “amnesia” after a near-fatal heart attack. (All resemblances to Corin Redgrave, Nelson assures us, are entirely incidental.) He’s cared for by his nieces, fretful Barbara (Maryann Plunkett) and brittle Marian (Laila Robbins); the latter has lost her teenaged daughter to suicide in the year since Hopey Changey, a subject everyone steps around very carefully … before stepping in, clumsily. The sisters tell Uncle Benjamin what he remembers, what he did the day before, what he likes and how he felt about it — the phrase “You liked it!” is thrown at him again and again, an encouragement and also a warding-off. They’re a kind of well-meaning Information Regime. Does he believe them? DeVries, an actor of incredible restraint and control, isn’t letting on: Whether Uncle Ben is at peace or in oblivion is one of this quietly devastating little play’s many mysteries. Less poker-faced is Richard (Jay O. Sanders), a state’s attorney who’s turned to Wall Street for security in his middle age. As before, he’s visiting from the City, and so is Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), a Manhattan author of middling success, who once again brings along her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Tim, an out-of-work actor (Shuler Hensley).
Sweet and Sad is essentially plotless, but no less urgent for it. It’s a sort of detective story, a search for the Big Why on the commemoration day of a great crime, it uses the dining room palaver of stymied New York liberals as a kind of theatrical Luminol. Arguing families are the meat and potatoes of theater, but most of them occlude more than they reveal — there’s nothing less interesting, onstage or in real life, than conflict for conflict’s sake, though dramatists, politicians, and talking heads often seem to feel otherwise. The Apples are different: Their clashes are simple expressions of who they are, border disputes with long and rich histories, borne out beautifully by an ensemble so casually talented, you forget the division between audience and actors. (Nelson works this objective into the text pretty explicitly; the fact that he then pulls it off, having tipped his hand, makes the show even more impressive.) As someone who mostly avoided the memorializing and marmoreal-izing of 9/11, I can think of no better tribute to the dead than this show, with its itchy frustrations with humanity, its deep sympathy for same, and its absolute refusal to let itself, or us, off easy. If you didn’t see it on “the day,” don’t be afraid: It’s not all that “disposable,” after all. I’ll even go ahead and tell you how you felt about: You liked it. Now go prove me wrong.
Completeness is at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, through September 25.
The Select is at New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, through October 9.
The Lapsburgh Layover is at Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street, through September 24.
Sweet and Sad is at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, through September 25.