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Completeness

Written by Itamar Moses
Directed by Matt Pfeiffer
November 29, 2018 — December 23, 2018

The Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 302 South Hicks Street

Running Time: 2 hrs (15 minute intermission)

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Featuring James Ijames, Mary Tuomanen, Claire Inie-Richards, and Justin Rose

Elliot builds a computer program to help Molly with her research project, and the variables in their evolving relationship shift as rapidly as the terms of their experiment. This incredibly seductive and ridiculously intelligent comedy by Itamar Moses explores the chemistry between smart, damaged people and what happens when they lose control of the science.

For mature audiences only.  Contains strong language, sexual content, and nudity.

Opening Night Sponsors: Anna Maria and Richard Di Dio

Presented by special arrangement with SAMUEL FRENCH, INC.

Reviews

“Fearless, pointed, frequently funny, and utterly compelling.”

Chicago Theatre Beat

“…funny and heartbreaking…directed with tenderness and humor by Matt Pfeiffer…”

Julia M. Klein, The Inquirer

“The production honors the play with Pfeiffer’s smooth direction, the sterling performances by Tuomanen, Ijames, and as two lovers jilted by the others, Justin Rose and Claire Inie-Richards.”

Howard Shapiro, WHYY

“The leads in Theatre Exile’s production (both playwrights and both actors at the top of their game) are well cast. Mary Tuomanen can do foxy nerd Molly to a turn. And James Ijames as Elliot is more loose and playful than I’ve ever seen him.” 

Kathryn Osenlund, Phindie

“Playwright Itamar Moses’s ability to seamlessly blend razor-sharp dialogue, scientific perspicacity, and the convoluted intricacies of romance is on full display in this newly rewritten version of Completeness…”

Rebecca Rendell, Talkin' Broadway

“Director Matt Pfeiffer provides considerable energy and sparkle in a visually imaginative production…”

David Fox, Reclining Standards

“…a fascinating 95-minute experiment of the mind and heart.”

Bill Chenevert

“…a beautiful presentation of the universal human experience.”

Alyssa Biederman, Broadway World

Buzz

“James Ijames named one of 5 Philly artists you need to see this fall.”

Victor Fiorillo, Philadelphia Magazine

An Interview with Tony Award-Winning Playwright Itamar Moses

DC Metro

An Interview with Completeness Playwright Itamar Moses

The Unionville Times

James Ijames and Mary Tuomanen. Photo by Paola Nogueras
James Ijames and Mary Tuomanen. Photo by Paola Nogueras

The Long Goodbye

Why ‘Completeness,’ a play about the impossibility of certainty, was singularly hard to finish.

It’s a truism sometimes attributed to da Vinci, W.H. Auden, or Paul Valery, sometimes about painting, sometimes about poetry, and it goes like this: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Anyone who has ever tried to write a play will understand. You will never feel completely satisfied. There will always be those lines, speeches, or turns of plot that you know you didn’t get quite right. So the question won’t be whether to abandon your play but when: When do you admit you’ve pushed the thing as far along the asymptotic curve towards its Platonic ideal as it’s going to get and vow to do better on the next one? While this question is always operant, it plagued me very specifically on and off for three years, and then another four, regarding Completeness, my play about university science nerds maybe falling in love.

Completeness was born when I was offered a commission by the Sloan Foundation, which supports plays that deal in some way with math and science, at a time when, as it happened, I had an idea for one. I’d become fascinated by a well-known problem in computer science (well-known to computer scientists, that is, and obscure to everyone else) called the “Traveling Salesman Problem,” which posits that even a powerful supercomputer running a sophisticated algorithm cannot tell you the best possible path for a traveling salesman among a given number of cities when the number of cities, and thus the number of possible paths, gets high enough. Rephrased as another truism, this one about love: Needing to know you’ve made the best possible choice leads only to paralysis.

And so I wrote a play about a computer-science grad student named Elliot working on this problem who meets a molecular biology grad student named Molly, whose work on synthetic wound healing metaphorically mirrors the difficulty of recovering from past heartbreak (which is, in my experience, another major obstacle to romantic bliss). Over the course of the play’s nine scenes they meet, shed their current partners, and get together (not entirely in that order), then run into problems in the form of new temptations and their own emotional baggage and ultimately falling apart…before maybe, just maybe, starting to reach out to each other again.

In April 2011 Completeness premiered at South Coast Repertory. An Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons followed that fall, and the script for that production was published and sold—is still sold—in the lobby of the theatre. So the thing was done, right? Ordinarily, after hitting some, let alone all, of these benchmarks, I would let a play go, for a variety of reasons, some good (e.g., seeing your play performed for multiple audiences may truly have allowed you to refine it to the point where you are reasonably satisfied), some less good (once a play has been exposed in these ways, certain psychological barriers to working on it seem to get higher, i.e., if the play did well, People know this version and it’ll muddy the waters if I keep changing it, and if it didn’t, Isn’t it pathetic to keep grinding on the same doomed thing?), and some outside of your control (e.g., the passage of time may have turned you into a different person from the one who first wrote the play, so you can no longer access it authentically).

But even as the play’s Off-Broadway run wound down, my brain was still spinning over a couple of unanswered questions, and in this case they weren’t the usual lower-order ones about the wording of a joke or a few stray beats—the kinds of things a playwright is likely just to tweak or massage whenever they happen to be involved in some hypothetical future production. No: Of the aforementioned nine scenes, though I was basically happy with the first six and the last, I had the strong sense that in between, in the vicinity of scenes seven and eight, I’d gotten something flat wrong.

I could feel this wrongness emanating from the text whenever I read it, or thought about it, or sat in the same room with it. And this feeling was confirmed whenever I watched a performance and, during that very section, felt audience engagement—that palpable buoyancy or electricity or tension that, when things are working properly, throbs in the air between a play in progress and the collective group-mind watching it—ebbing away. When Elliot and Molly unpacked their emotional baggage for each other in scene seven, the whole thing seemed to meander and take too long. And when they were tempted by attractive new alternatives in scene eight, there didn’t seem to be sufficient dramaturgical real estate to properly establish the new characters.

Also, a meta-theatrical device that ended scene eight (an interruption to the play meant to underscore the weird tension between a play as both a scripted event meant to unfold in a particular way, i.e., like a computer algorithm, and a one-time live event with all the mess that that entails, i.e., a biological experiment) seemed to fall flat, but I couldn’t tell if this was because it was incorrectly constructed, because it was unnecessary, or because its impact was being harmed by the erosion of interest caused by errors I’d made in the scenes immediately preceding it.

And finally, while all this meandering and meta-theatricality made the play long enough to require an intermission, its status as essentially a romantic comedy seemed to call for a sleeker, intermissionless experience; as I remarked to Pam MacKinnon, who directed both the regional and the New York premiere, “If I could cut 10 minutes from this play I could cut 25.”

James Ijames and Mary Tuomanen in “Completeness” at Theatre Exile. (Photo by Paola Nogueras)

So when the Off-Broadway production closed, rather than letting the play go and moving on, I felt myself continuing to work on it. I say “felt myself,” because it seemed to be happening, if not against then at least without my conscious will. I’d be walking down the street, or exercising at the gym, or trying to work on a different, newer play, and my mind would return to the “problem scenes” in Completeness and turn them over, trying to “fix” them. It kept me up at night, figuratively speaking, and also sometimes literally. And because the best and really only way to confidently make changes to a play is to try them out for real in the laboratory, as it were, or full production, what followed was a years-long slow-motion odyssey of periodic chances to get back in the ring with the play and take another swing.

L.A. Theatre Works, which records audio versions of plays, did a recording in 2012, for which I tinkered mainly with scenes seven and eight. The following year Theater Wit, in Chicago, whose artistic director, Jeremy Wechsler, had worked as a computer scientist, staged a production for which I tinkered further. The play was published in a collection from Oberon Press in a version that differed from the version published by Playwrights Horizons and also from the L.A. Theatre Works recording, and was then licensed by Samuel French in a version that differed from all three. And still I had the feeling there was something I hadn’t cracked about the play, that I was simply rearranging deck chairs on, if not the Titanic then a boat that continued to list slightly to one side.

It was not lost on me, nor perhaps is it on you, as you read this, that there may be an eerie parallel between my ongoing preoccupation, nigh obsession with getting this play “right”—with “solving” it—and Elliot’s attempts inside the play to solve the unsolvable problem in his field. More than once I wondered whether this over-identification with my protagonist was all that was going on and if I, like him, was eventually going to have to conclude that certain things can never be completely solved, and that’s okay.

Then in November 2014 I happened to be in Los Angeles during a run of Completeness at VS. Theatre Company there, directed by Matt Pfeiffer. And suddenly, I had the lightning-bolt moment I’d been waiting for. I saw how and where to cut scene seven so that it would land properly and not meander. I saw the device that would allow me to more efficiently establish the new characters in scene eight in less time, and how this would allow me to evaluate whether the meta-theatrical breakdown that followed worked on its own terms or not. And I saw that all this would take enough time out of the play that I could finally cut the intermission too.

Why could I suddenly see this so clearly after straining so hard for clarity for so many years? At the time I thought it was simply that I had finally achieved sufficient distance from the play or had at last grown enough as an artist and/or person. And all of this was true, up to a point. But something much more specific was also going on, and it was this: Since the last time I had seen this play, I had finished a new one.

In June of 2014 I’d taken part in the first workshop of my play The Whistleblower at the Colorado New Play Festival in Steamboat Springs, marking the first time I’d been in a rehearsal room with a new non-musical in something like four years. The act of removing a new script from the private safety of my hard drive and placing it into the bodies of actors and in front of the eyes and ears of an audience had done something to the way I was now able to watch my older one. It was as if knowing for sure that Completeness would not be my last play freed me from needing it to be and say everything it could, and allowed me simply to help it be and say only what it wanted to—as if having to care for something new that was struggling toward a final form rendered the final form of Completeness completely obvious.

I told Matt what I was thinking, and that if he ever wanted to direct the play again—say at Theatre Exile, in Philadelphia, where he is associate artistic director—that my rewrite would be ready. Then I went back home to New York and, some three years after the play had closed there, did the rewrite in four hours. So the rewrite took three years and four hours, which was as clear an example as I’d ever experienced of the fact that sometimes the most important thing we can do for our art is something else. And I knew that it was right—or right enough—because from that day the splinter in my brain that been troubling my sleep all that time dissolved, never to return.

It would be another year before Matt and I managed to schedule a reading in Philly to confirm my suspicions that I was on the right track, then three more until, in October 2018, a production of the new draft went into rehearsal at Theatre Exile. Even then it took watching rehearsal room run-throughs, another bout of rewriting, and attending a preview and another performance near the end of the run to further evaluate and refine the new sections and at long last determine the ultimate fate of that meta-theatrical disruption (I turned it into an optional appendix).

Now, some eight and a half years after the world premiere of Completeness at South Coast Rep, Samuel French has (kindly) agreed to license the new version going forward and (very kindly) to republish the play. At last I feel ready to let Elliot and Molly go. Not really finished, maybe, but abandoned, they will have to travel on from here without my help.

Which is a good thing, because I premiered a play at Berkeley Rep in 2008 called Yellowjackets and, you know what, I never felt like I got that one quite right…

Itamar Moses wrote the book for the Tony-winning musical The Band’s Visit and is the author of the plays Bach at LeipzigThe Four of Us, and Back Back Back, among others.

James Ijames (Elliot)
James Ijames is a Philadelphia based performer and playwright. He has appeared regionally in productions at The Arden Theatre Company, The Philadelphia Theatre Company, InterAct Theatre Company, The Wilma Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, Mauckingbird Theatre Company, and People’s Light and Theatre. James is the 2011 F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Artist recipient, a 2011 Independence Foundation Fellow, a 2015 Pew Fellow for Playwriting, the 2015 winner of the Terrance McNally New Play Award for WHITE and a 2017 recipient of the Whiting Award.  James is a founding member of Orbiter 3, Philadelphia’s first playwright producing collective. James is Assistant Professor of Theatre at Villanova University and resides in South Philadelphia.

Mary Tuomanen (Molly)
Mary Tuomanen’s recent credits include the Arden Theatre’s Fun Home, Opera Philadelphia’s Ne Quittez Pas, and Wilma Theatre’s Mr. Burns. Her play Marcus Garvey And Emma Goldman Have Hot Hot Sex (MARCUS/EMMA) was first developed here at Theater Exile and later premiered at InterAct in 2017. She is a company member of Applied Mechanics and a recent recipient of the Haas Emerging Artist Award, as well as the 2017 Philadelphia Award for her play Peaceable Kingdom. She was a founder of playwright’s collective Orbiter 3 with her friend James Ijames, with whom she is honored to share a stage again after so many years.

Claire Inie-Richards (Lauren/Nell/et al.)
Claire is a Philadelphia-based actor and teaching artist. As a Company Member of People’s Light she has performed in PROJECT DAWN, I AND YOU, THE CHERRY ORCHARD among others, and will appear in next summer’s OUR TOWN. Locally She has performed with Theatre Horizon, Delaware Theatre Company, Shakespeare in Clark Park and Lantern Theatre where she will next appear in MEASURE FOR MEASURE. Claire has worked for BBC Radio 4, and holds a degree in theatre from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.Itamar Moses (Playwright)

Justin Rose (Don/Franklin/et al.)
Justin is a Philadelphia-based performer, director and teaching artist. Recent onstage credits include Geoff Sobelle’s HOME, which will next tour to Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Berkley Rep, Let the Dog See the Rabbit (Lightning Rod Special), Always Coming SoonThe Future (Brat Productions), 99 BREAKUPS (Pig Iron Theatre Company), The Douglas/Poins in Henry IV(Shakespeare in Clark Park & Team Sunshine), and The Balladeer in The West (Alex Bechtel Producer/Director). He also directed former Cirque du Soleil juggler Greg Kennedy’s Theorem (Philly Fringe) and is the Assistant Director for Geoff Sobelle’s Object Lesson. Justin was a Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of The Candidatos, a two-man theatre company that performed their most popular show, I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry, at the New York Clown Theatre Festival, and Fringe Festivals in Dublin, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Philadelphia. He is a graduate of The Pig Iron School and The University of Iowa.

Matt Pfeiffer (Director)
Matt is a Philly born actor and director who serves as the Associate Artistic Director of Theatre Exile. Some previous Exile credits; BugThe Lieutenant of InishmoreThe Aliens, and True West. Other credits include; Arden Theatre, InterAct, Walnut St., 1812, Lantern Theatre, Delaware Theatre Co. The Gulfshore Playhouse, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, UArts, Mask and Wig, and 20 seasons with the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Matt is a twelve-time Barrymore nominee and winner, for his direction of The Whale and The Invisible Hand both with Theatre Exile. He’s also a recipient of the F. Otto Haas Award. Matt is a proud grad DeSales University. Love to Kim and John.

Colin McIlvaine (Set Designer)
Adapted from a set design by Darcy Scanlin
Colin is a Philadelphia-based, Barrymore nominated scenic designer named this season as one of American Theatre Magazine’s 20 People to Watch.  Recent credits include: Ella (Delaware Theatre Company), Salt Pepper Ketchup(Interact Theatre).  Colin’s recent associate design credits include: Thunderbodies (Soho Rep), Pipeline (Lincoln Center).  In addition to his freelance career, Colin lectures at The University of the Arts and Temple University.  B.A. University of Maryland; MFA Scenic Design Temple University. www.colinmcilvaine.com

Alison Roberts (Costume Designer)
Completeness is Alison Roberts’ 18th show with Theatre Exile; she’s been a collaborator since 2006. She has a BA in Theatre Arts from Rowan University and an MFA in Costume Design and Technology from Illinois State University. She has been freelance designing in the Greater Philadelphia Area for the last seventeen years. She’s worked with the Arden Theatre Company, The National Constitution Center, Delaware Theatre Company, InterAct Theatre, 1812 Productions, Lantern Theater Company, Theatre Horizon, Villanova University and Philadelphia Young Playwrights. For more information check out www.alisonrobertsdesign.com

Alyssandra Docherty (Lighting Designer)
Alyssandra Docherty is a Philadelphia based lighting designer originally from Vernon, NJ. After graduating with honors and a BA in Theatre from DeSales University, she continued her training as an apprentice at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut.  She spent five seasons as the Lighting Supervisor at Philadelphia Theatre Company, and has been touring internationally as the Associate Lighting Designer with Koresh Dance Company since 2013 and with BalletX as their Lighting Director since 2017.  Recently, Aly’s designs have been seen in Theatre Horizon’s The Color Purple, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Sweat, Walnut Street Theatre’s In Between, and Azuka Theatre’s Mrs. Harrison.  She has also designed for the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival, Shakespeare in Clark Park, Simpatico Theatre Company, DeSales University, Drexel University, and Wolf Trap Opera, among others. www.alyssandradocherty.com.

Mike Kiley (Sound Designer)
Michael Kiley is a sound designer, composer, performer and educator working in theatre and dance. He has designed and composed for numerous Theatre Exile productions, including Rizzo, The Invisible Hand and The Aliens. Other theatre credits include The Arden Theatre, People’s Light, and others. Dance collaborations include Faye Driscoll, luciana achugar, Nichole Canuso Dance Company, Chelsea and Magda and SubCircle. Michael makes his own work under the moniker The Mural and The Mint, including The Empty Air and Animina, two GPS controlled compositions for iPhone. He is a 2016 recipient of The Pew Center For Arts and Heritage Project Grant to produce Prescription, an immersive, participatory voice piece next Fall.

Eli Lynn (Intimacy Director)
Eli (they/them) is an apprentice with Intimacy Directors International (teamidi.org), where they have over 60+ hours of training in Intimacy Direction. They were honored to be a participant in the first ever Pedagogy Intensive with IDI at the University of Illinois in the summer of 2018. They have also studied stage combat for over nine years, and are a recognized Advanced Actor Combatant with 5 international stage combat organizations. They currently apprentice under Broadway Fight Master Ian Rose, and and are working towards Certified Instructor status with both the Society of American Fight Directors and Fight Directors Canada. Acting credits include: Sensitive Guys(World Premiere, InterAct Theatre), Shakespeare In Love (PA Shakespeare Festival), The Winter’s Tale (Folger Theatre), Sleeping Beauty (People’s Light). Love always to Vanessa. Soli Deo Gloria.

Shaelyn Weatherup (Props Master)
Credits: 1812 Productions- Broken BiscuitsThis Is The Week That Is; Lantern Theater Company- Hapgood; University of the Arts- American IdiotBourgeois GentlemanAcediaRocky Horror Show. BFA University of the Arts Theater Design and Technology. shaelynweatherup.com

Brian V. Klinger (Stage Manager)
Brian V. Klinger has been a proud Equity member since 1988. In the Philadelphia area, Brian has worked at the Walnut, Prince, Arden, Philadelphia Shakespeare, Society Hill Playhouse, Delaware Theatre Company, Resident Theatre Company, PSM’d several musicals at Penn’s Landing Playhouse and was in residence for four years at the Wilma.  National and international tours include Jelly Roll!Ballet Hispanico of New YorkRespect, two years with Florida’s Asolo Theatre, a memorable summer with the Chinese Golden Dragon Acrobats in the US and Canada and overseas with Road and the world premiere musical Blackbirds of Broadway.  Off-Broadway with Perfect Crime and The Hummingbird’s Tour as well as work with Lincoln Center’s Directors’ Lab and regionally seasons at Princeton’s McCarter, Atlanta’s Alliance, Virginia’s Barter, the Utah Shakespearean Festival and W.H.A.T. in Wellfleet, MA.  Amidst this, there were also the years spent as a Franciscan Friar, but that’s another story entirely.

Courtney Banks (Production Manager)
This is Courtney’s second year with Theatre Exile and first year as production manager. She has been involved as the assistant production manager of Theatre Exile for the productions of Ideation and Really. She also works as a freelance stage manager working at companies such as Theatre Horizon and The Santa Fe Opera.

Randi Alexis Hickey (Assistant Director)

Itamar Moses
Itamar Moses is the author of the full-length plays OUTRAGE, BACH AT LEIPZIG, CELEBRITY ROW, THE FOUR OF US, YELLOWJACKETS, BACK BACK BACK, COMPLETENESS, and THE WHISTLEBLOWER, the musicals NOBODY LOVES YOU (with Gaby Alter), FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE (with Michael Friedman), and THE BAND’S VISIT (with David Yazbek), and the evening of short plays LOVE/STORIES (OR BUT YOU WILL GET USED TO IT). His work has appeared Off-Broadway and elsewhere in New York, at regional theatres across the country and in Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Venezuela, Turkey and Chile, and is published by Faber & Faber and Samuel French. Awards for his work include Lucille Lortel, New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle, and Obie awards in New York, as well as awards from the Portland, San Diego, Dallas, and Bay Area Theatre Critics Circles. He’s received new play commissions from The McCarter, Playwrights Horizons, Berkeley Rep, The Wilma Theater, South Coast Rep, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center, and The Goodman. On television, Itamar has written for TNT’s MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE, HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE, WGN’S OUTSIDERS, SHOWTIME’S THE AFFAIR, and TNT’S THE ALIENIST. He holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU and has taught playwriting at Yale and NYU. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild and is a New York Theatre Workshop Usual Suspect. Born in Berkeley, CA, he now lives in Brooklyn, NY.