Interview with Playwright Itamar Moses

Tue, 10/23/2018

Interview with Completeness playwright Itamar Moses

1. Where did you get the idea for this story?  How did the idea develop over time?
The first spark for the idea came when I learned about the Traveling Salesman Problem, which is the name of the most important unsolved problem in all of Computer Science. I was taking Electrical Engineering 101 — to fulfill part of my science breadth requirement in college — and the TSP came up as the reason it’s impossible to search for passwords just by trying every possible combination of letters and numbers. I remember liking how simple the problem was and that it had this evocative, non-science sounding name.
It didn’t occur to me that there might be a play in it, though, until many years later, when I received a Sloane Commission from Manhattan Theatre Club. The Sloane Foundation gives money to commissions scripts about math and science, and when I was offered a commission I remembered the Traveling Salesman Problem, which is essentially a problem of choice-making when there are too many possibilities, and it suddenly occurred to me that it was a good metaphor for choosing a life partner. I immediately saw the seeds of a romantic comedy about someone working on the problem who also sees it manifest in his personal life, and my protagonist, Elliot was born.
Then came the long process of actually writing the play, which presented its own challenges.
2. There's a lot of science and technology integrated into this play. Did you have to become an expert on anything to write it?
Well the easier half was just making sure I understood the Traveling Salesman Problem. I didn’t need to learn all of Computer Science, just the parameters of this one problem. A sort of narrow but deep dive if you will. But then I needed to choose a scientific focus for the play’s other main character, Elliot’s love-interest Molly. And I couldn’t just select one at random, I needed a focus for her that complemented his, both literally and metaphorically. I was pretty sure I wanted her work to involved messy real-world science to contrast with the virtuality an abstraction of his, so I thought maybe Chemistry or Biology, but this didn’t narrow things down very much. I settled on Molecular Biology because I had an instinct this would provide me with the right complementary metaphor, but this didn’t narrow things down very much either. So that was the hardest thing: researching and reading about parts of MB&B and, in the end, talking to a couple of Molecular Biologists from Columbia, to pick a focus for Molly. Once the idea of protein interaction networks came up, and tests for which proteins bond with each other, I knew I had the right thing, so then I could do another deep dive. But finding that way in took some time.
3. You mentioned that you are continuing to work on the play even though it already had a regional and New York premiere.  Why and what does that look like?
That’s true! I think there’s a common misconception that when a play premieres, or premieres in New York, that the playwright is necessarily done with it. Sometimes that’s true, but it’s just as often not true, there are usually at least some things that nags at you, that you never felt you got completely right. Sometimes you let it go, chalk it up to experience, and vow to get it right on the next play. But sometimes one of those nagging feelings is so strong that you keep thinking about the play and more work you want to do on it. That’s what happened to me with Completeness. I just always felt there was a stretch of the play’s second half that never worked the way that I intended. Each time there would be a production after the New York production I’d tinker with the play a little, trying out new ways through the parts that bothered me. Finally, about four years after the New York premiere, while watching a small production in LA, I had the light bulb moment and saw how to fix the things that had been nagging at me. When I got back to New York, I sat down and did the rewrite…and finally felt satisfied. This was a few years ago now, and I haven’t worked on the play since. So it’s really that simple: a question of what you, the writer, in your gut or your heart of hearts or whatever, let’s you feel you can let the thing go, independently of how well or badly received it was, or what other people told you to change or told you not to. One of the reason I’m so excited for the Theatre Exile production is it’s the first one I’m going to be able to see that uses the newest version.
4. Is the structure of this play different from your other plays? In what way? You've used meta-theatricality as a tool in your plays, can you talk about the way you use it in Completeness? Do you care whether the audience thinks that moment is real or scripted?
Well, all my plays are structured differently from one another. So it’s different insofar as the structure emerges from the themes of the play. But it’s similar in that all my plays tend to draw their forms from aspects of the content. In the case of using something like meta-theatricality in particular, I never do it for its own sake. It tends to come up when something about the content starts to mirror the process of playwriting and theatre-making so powerfully that it can’t help but bleed into the script. This actually happens pretty rarely, but Completeness is one of the places where it happened, in one moment you’re alluding to, where it becomes temporarily unclear if the actors are still on script or not. Ultimately, I want to be clear that everything is scripted, for the simple reason that if the audience thinks something isn’t an intentional part of the play they won’t try to extract meaning from it. But I also definitely want a period of suspension, of confusion about what’s real and what’s not.
5. Why do you think Theatre Exile is a good fit for Completeness?
For starters, because it’s Matt Pfeiffer’s theatre. I’ve known Matt a long time. He acted in the Philly production of my play The Four of Us and directed the LA production of Completeness that helped me see how to “fix” the play (at least according to me). I think he has a really good understanding of me and my work, which is always a great place to start. I also like the Philly theatre scene in general, having worked at the Wilma, 1812 Production, and People’s Light in the past. It’s a great place to do theatre, period.
6. What are you hoping Matt will bring to the table?
In addition to what I’ve said already, I’m also excited that it’s his second crack at the play. I often hear directors say they wish they’d known at the beginning of a process the things they knew by the end. Matt gets to have that advantage now.
7. Is there anything audiences should know before coming to see the play?
That any advance press that makes it sound like the play is all about dense science stuff that’s hard to understand is misleading and factually pretty wrong. In the end, it’s meant to be a funny, sexy, smart, and finally hopefully moving and thought-provoking romantic comedy about nerds.
8. Is there anything you hope they will walk away with?
Their brain and hearts tickled and some things to think and talk about.
9. You won a Tony Award for The Band’s Visit!  Congratulations!  How has that changed your trajectory as a playwright?    
We’ll see!