“Completeness,” by Itamar Moses, is about the bumpy love affair between Molly, a molecular biologist—note the anaphora in “Mol” and “mol”—and Elliot, a computer scientist (why not Conrad, for symmetry?), as endless palaver about proteins in yeast and algorithms on computers supposedly supply the orchestration for an age-old song.
It is about these two nerdy grad students (perhaps three, if we include Moses for swotting up on those two disciplines): how they meet, collaborate, have sex, lose each other, and are perhaps reconciled in an ambiguous ending that conceivably illustrates Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
Although some old and new lovers obtrude on the couple’s amorous tergiversations, nothing much happens except some Valley-girl talk and scientific logorrhea. Molly has problems with the proteins in yeast, and Elliot pursues solutions in abstruse algorithms, which, believe it or not, is the preponderant substance of over two hours’ worth of highly technical garrulity.
Where is the audience for such a play? You might think it to be at least microbiologists and computer scientists, since everyone else will be lost in all that scientific jargon and bored out of his microbiological scull. But the respective grad students already know all that stuff and don’t need it rehashed or regurgitated for them, so even they will be bored out of their macrobiological sconces.
But for those whose doldrums might be mitigated by performances of great charm, the production doesn’t even fill that bill. Karl Miller does nicely enough by Elliot, but Aubrey Dollar’s Molly has about as much charisma as a used car salesman. In multiple roles, Meredith Forlenza has a modicum of appeal; Brian Avers (admittedly underserved by the author), rather less.
It all goes to show that what Moses supposes does not come up roses, and that no amount of protein in yeast can rise to dramatic heights. So Itamar, a bit o’ more accessible lingo, please, and more original plot the next time round.
“Play It Cool” bills itself as “a new musical,” which right away raises the question of what exactly is new here. It opens with Henry, a tough hombre of a vice cop, announcing, “Spring, 1953. Hollywood. Not much different than it is now.” That almost says it all.
The scene is Mary’s Hideaway, a jazz club and oasis for gays and lesbians at a time when there was no overt and official tolerance for homosexuals. The prose dialogue (as opposed to the heavily rhymed lyrics) is imitation, if not parody, Hammett and Chandler, except that this is lower-case chandler that can’t hold a candle to the upper-case one. Inasmuch as gay sex then meant hiding and dissembling, the premise and premises are indeed different, but the solecism “different than,” alas, is no different from today’s parlance.
The show was conceived by Larry Dean Harris, with a book by him and Martin Casella, lyrics by Mark Winkler and music by Phillip Swann. But also additional music by five: Jim Andron (also one lyric), Michael Cruz, Marilyn Harris (a spouse?), Emilio Palame and Larry Steelman—in other words, a bit of a patchwork quilt.
The eponymous owner of the lesbian club, Mary, is described as “a cross between a Mack truck and Ethel Merman.” Mack truck is debatable—SUV might be nearer the mark for the actress—but there is no arguing about the other: Sally Mayes is definitely no Ethel Merman, but then, who is?
Anyway, this is meant to be about Mary, who sings, “In this world of secrets and dreams/ Nothing here is what it seems.” To be sure, that redundant “here” is only seeming syntax, but the rest is pretty much what it seems: obvious. Thus middle-aged Mary, the jealous diesel dyke; thus her young lover and lead chanteuse, Lena, a femme with lapses into heterosexuality; thus Eddie, a Hollywood producer and homosexual who picks up Will, a pretty boy escaped from his dull home and in search of stardom; and thus, almost, the tough cop Henry, except for his genuine secret to hide, although even that secret is fairly obvious.
Yet, old hat and ragtag as it is, “Play It Cool” is not a total loss. There is rather good jazz, well played by pianist David Libby, bassist Dan Fabricatore and drummer Dan Gross—especially apt between the songs but not bad in them. Some of the songs—music and occasional lyrics—are listenable enough. Good too is the cast, headed by Sally Mayes, who was annoying when young, but is now quite suited to her role. So too Robyn Hurder as Lena, the perfect Tinseltown bimbo; Chris Hoch as a suitably sleazy Hollywood producer; Michael F. McGuirk, as a cop who cops out; and Michael Buchanan as the pretty boy (though not all that pretty) on the make for any kind of useful relationship.
The musical numbers, however hand-me-down, are still wearable or bearable, too bad that they suffer from excessive repetition so as to stretch a ninety-minute idea to two hours. There is also amiable choreography from Marc Kimelman, respectable direction from Sharon Rosen, and a convincing set from Thomas A. Walsh.
“Play It Cool” may only play at being cool, but there are moments when, in its warmed-over way, it goes down easily enough.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.