Grad-student linguists in love are at the center of Andrea Kuchlewska’s unromantic comedy.
by Myron Meisel
The Bottom Line
The use and abuse of language and how it affects our sense of self is at the heart of this glibly effective unromantic comedy.
Grad-student linguists in love — but can they express it amid all their analytic articulation? Not so easily when the twisted rhetoric of an est-like movement intrudes on the plain meanings of vocabulary and the obscure significance of personal identity and responsibility.
In Complete, playing through March 30 at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles, pathologically shy Micah (Scott Kruse) undertakes a weekend of isolated “training” to motivate himself to tell his fellow scholar, the dynamically driven Eve (Meredith Bishop), that he loves her just before they are about to deliver their joint research paper to a national academic convention, something he has never had the wherewithal to do. Eve, however, had a checkered past experience with the same self-actualization cult from age 9 and has dedicated herself to linguistics in part to rescue the value of words and syntax from the abuse of the movement guru Jack (Scott Victor Nelson), who so helped her traumatized mother yet blighted her own growth.
Playwright Andrea Kuchlewska lived a similar childhood to Eve’s, and her uncanny ear for the arguments advanced by the preachers of self-help pointedly conveys the hectoring bullying that is inextricable from the motivational benefits of challenging people’s inhibitions to take charge of their lives. She exhibits both lacerating wit and tough insight in her criticism of both the charismatic manipulation and the desperate need of the believers to make egocentrism the central arbiter of their reality. We are not exclusively the authors of our past, nor our present, nor our future, and not every emotional state is a product of our choices for which we are solely responsible. We can choose, or be forced, to deny it, but the earth nevertheless still revolves around the sun.
In this context, technical banter about linguistics between Micah and Eve feels refreshingly precise and probing, and the contrast with the exposing twisting of the plain meaning of words (especially the verbs) can be surprisingly funny and bracingly bright. They make a likable couple even if they are constitutionally incapable of moving their obviously intimate connection into any interchange that is remotely personal.
Bishop has to navigate an obstacle course of hairpin turns as she plays not only Eve but also her mother and herself as a teenager. But what is most impressive is how she stays so rigorously in touch with Eve’s fierce intellectual integrity, a quality still not often enough dramatized in female characters, and yet she also has the ability to show how this most appealing drive for truth and understanding also keeps any contrary assertion by anyone else at bay. Eve is smart yet unstintingly demanding, and while she overcompensates for her stunted development, she is in part effective because of, as well as in spite of, those lessons drilled into her in the “room.”
Jennifer Chambers directs with great intensity while maintaining unflagging forward momentum despite a complicated flashback structure, and all the actors, including Tess Oswalt as the precocious 9-year old Evie, register powerful impressions with considerable precision and verve. As ever, the subtle master hand of sound designer John Zalewski again demonstrates that his presence on a production is a reliable indicator of a worthwhile play.