The premise of Itamar Moses' new romantic comedy "Completeness" is as daring as it is drab — a university love story about a computer scientist and a molecular biologist who fall for each other after he creates a data analysis algorithm to help her with a research project on protein interaction in yeast cultures.
It's not exactly the kind of affair that captures the imagination.
Moses' overly cerebral play, which opened this week at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, features dialogue that is surprisingly bright and fluid, despite the fact that his characters mix pillow talk with mathematical and genetic theory.
But the playwright's success in cleverly exploring the vagaries of how we use both technical and informal speech does not carry over to the development of his characters, who lack depth, or a plot that seems to freeze up more times than an old PC.
Graduate students Elliot (Karl Miller) and Molly (Aubrey Dollar) meet in a typically barren computer lab, hemmed in by windowless, white walls and dark, unattractive carpeting. The dreariness of the setting for their first encounter is foretelling of the mostly uneventful narrative that follows.
The two embark on a fling that quickly turns into something more, leaving them desperate to exorcise the demons of past relationships.
One reason the plot stalls is the constant attention Moses pays to his examination of language and verbalizing abstract concepts, whether scientific ones and or intimate thoughts. His characters simply do a lot of sitting around and talking.
These parleys occur with Elliot and Molly lounging in bed, or parked in front of computers, with very little action and only minimal interaction with secondary characters, like Molly's adviser (Brian Avers) and Elliot's ex-girlfriend (Meredith Forlenza).
The exchanges are funny, at times eloquent, often rapid and performed slickly by a talented, appealing cast, under the direction of Pam MacKinnon.
Moses displays an ability to crystalize nuances of how we use conversational speech, particularly when expressing thoughts that might be confrontational or provocative or painful.
One prominent way in which he achieves this is by using the word "like" to string together thoughts. It's a practice that is ubiquitous in everyday conversation, but the playwright employs it as something more significant than an afterthought, peppering it with increasing frequency to signal self-doubt or discomfort.
Another technique he plays with is ending sentences before they are complete, indicating the speaker's self-editing on touchy subjects, and allowing the audience to interpret the unspoken lines.
In the couple's more academic discourse, Moses is able to convey complex scientific ideas with a minimal amount of jargon, and loosely tie them to his characters' personal involvement in a kind of allegorical weave of science and real life.
There's a lot to like about the smart dialogue in "Completeness," on display in Playwrights' Mainstage theater through Sept. 25, but the wordy comedy's microchip-thin plot ultimately feels ... incomplete.