By LONNIE FIRESTONE
Romance and science may seem like an unlikely pair, but if you look closer, you'll find a surprising amount of overlap. The links are especially vivid in Itamar Moses’ new play Completeness, in which the hard facts of the lab intertwine with the intangibles of love.
Moses’ plays are known for exploring big ideas: Bach at Leipzig, for instance, questions the conventions of music, and The Four of Us contemplates the nature of writing. In Completeness, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, he uses the sciences to frame a love story between a molecular biologist and a computer scientist.
In researching play, Moses found that molecules behave a bit like people, moving about alone until they’re drawn to one another. “When it seems that these two molecules should drift in opposite directions, I’ll nudge them back together," he says, referring to Molly and Eliot, the central couple of the show.
Molly and Eliot meet in the computer lab of a prestigious university, and their physical desire blends with their mental compatibility. Eliot soon offers to design an algorithm that will help interpret the protein bonds that Molly is studying. As they discuss their work, they begin to flirt: It's a glimpse at foreplay in academia.
From the start, Moses was confident in setting the play against a university backdrop. As the son of a professor, it's an environment he’s known for years. "Schools are little petri dishes," he says. "It’s people trapped together in a social lab." To familiarize himself with the sciences, Moses read a great deal about molecular biology and discussed the subject over beers with PhD students. His interest in computer science began in college, where he first learned about the Traveling Salesman Problem---a famously complex study in mathematics that looks at the multitude of paths a salesman might take. In contemplating the play, Moses recalled this "mathematical problem with an evocative name" and decided to incorporate it into Eliot’s story. "I realized that it was a really good metaphor for dating."
As the play took shape, Moses discovered how much the language of science can overlap with the language of relationships. A statement about proteins binding can be misconstrued as a sexual advance; a remark that seems to be about computer codes is really about love.
"I took it as a sign that I had set up the balance of the personal and the scientific," he says.
Lonnie Firestone is a writer based in New York City.