Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"An Entomologist's Love Story"

An Entomologist’s Love Story
Melissa Ross

Lucas Verbrugghe & Lori Prince
Blink, blink. ... Blink, Blink.

Blink/Pause. ... Blink/Pause.

Signals go out into the night, searching for a compatible mate -- for hot sex.  The climax could be even more ecstatic since the female may be one that kills the male as the deed is done.

Such is the life of a firefly.  Much the same happens to Praying Mantis males on the prowl.  One first-and-final fling and then it is heads over heels into his mate’s mouth.

Betty is one of Fordham University’s hottest tickets as an adjunct professor, interesting enough in describing and showing slides of bug sex that her students actually look up from their IPhones to become enthralled.  Her own online prowls for hook-ups via OKCupid and EHarmony are part of the constant chatter she directs at fellow Museum of Natural History entomologist, Jeff -- a friend for twenty years who once had a short sojourn as her bedmate and lover.  Her own cynical, almost vicious views of the men she finds online (and the fact she as a woman feels the necessity to act dumber than they in order to keep them interested) is not that much unlike the venom of the female insects she describes as they too devour their finds.  But she also shows evident delight in recounting her blow-by-blow (as in often below the belt) escapades to Jeff, all the time encouraging the much shier, more reserved workmate to do the same. 

And so sets up the search for love among insects and these two long-time, thirty-something pals and colleagues as the first scenes unfold in the furiously funny and edgy An Entomologist’s Love Story by Melissa Ross.  Currently in a first-class, visually stunning world premiere by San Francisco Playhouse, An Entomologist’s Love Story is a ninety-minute whizz under the watchful and creative eye of Giovanna Sardelli (who also directed the workshop when the piece-in-progress first appeared at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s 2014 New Works Festival).  The director has Jeff and Betty often flying around their shared laboratory/office on rolling chairs like insects in flight while sending out verbal stingers often meant to target the other’s hot buttons that they have discovered in microscopically examining and noting in memory notes each other’s foibles through the years.  Theirs is a friendship deep but one where there is still a question if those romps together in the past are really only of the past.  That question comes up early in Ms. Ross’s snappy, sharp, and sexy script -- one that lingers tauntingly in the air as the play quickly moves through its number of delightful, laugh-inducing scenes.

Lori Prince
Lori Prince in a constant whir of movement as Betty, rarely able to stay perched in any one position long without jerking herself with renewed vigor to focus on her prey (usually Jeff).  Her sudden flight is often accompanied by her spewing forth a new flurry of babble – a mixture of confessions, accusations, and insinuations that are sometimes made with tongue-in-cheek and at other times with the intention to sting enough to hurt. 

Betty is clearly the star of her a story all about her, and she insists that Jeff listen and be a part of her life’s unfolding as it is happening (while still being coy if he starts probing too much about things she had rather not admit – like a possible new boyfriend).  But she also wants to know all the details of Jeff’s life and better yet, to shape/alter them to her satisfaction when they do not meet her approval – like his meeting and seeing a potential new girlfriend.  Lori Prince is perfectly cast as the high-flung, ego-centered but highly insecure Betty, finding a myriad of ways to display all of Betty’s complicated sides as one who is thirty-five and still single, with eyes on the ticking time clock of life.

Lucas Verbrugghe
Much different in many ways but yet still able to be aroused by Betty into his own frantic frenzy of digs and denials is Jeff -- also thirty-five but often regressing to his late teens.  Lucas Verbrugghe is a Jeff who stumbles about making wonderfully awkward, out-of-place remarks when trying too hard to make good impressions while also moving in over-done ways like a boy whose hormones are still in full rage and control.  He is by nature quiet and shy but can burst into bold and boisterous at any moment in ways that look like he has just broken through his latest self-spun cocoon.  When with Betty, the two of them are often anything but mid-thirties in their maturity, ready to play any minute “hipster or homeless” while sitting on a bench in front of the museum.  Together, too, they sometimes still send to the other a signal of possible attraction -- leaving each to wonder if it is a signal of compatibility or if it is a fatal warning.

Lucas Verbrugghe & Jessica Lynn Carroll
Bugs lead each to discover a total stranger who may or may not be on the right wavelength for a possible match.  Bed bugs bring Jeff and Lindsay together, she being the opposite of Betty in almost every dimension.  Jessica Lynn Carroll brings a high, giggling voice and a bubbling personality that leads Betty to greet her with, “Oh God, you’re like a living, breathing Disney princess.” 

Lori Prince & Will Springhorn Jr
After landing together by chance on a Central Park bench, Andy recognizes Betty as the lady who gives the bug lectures.  (He sits in on her classes in between his work hours as a part-time janitor at Fordham.)  As Andy, Will Springhorn Jr. is proud of who he is by profession and attracted immediately to this woman who reminds him of “that guy on Sixty Minutes” – i.e., Andy Rooney.  He has his own unique ways of moving in on a reluctant Betty (who argues to Jeff, “He’s a janitor ... I have 500 degrees”), but his self-arranged flowers arriving at the lab that look more like a jungle do begin to catch her attention – even though she does all she can to deny to herself and Jeff that is so.

Nina Ball and Jacqueline Scott have outdone themselves in creating the sets and properties for this Playhouse fun time.  Massive walls of shelves full of mounted and bottled insects rise on each side of the stage, with the turntable soon revealing an even more impressive back wall of framed specimens and over-sized models of bugs and insects.  Even the polished wood desks, specimen drawers, and work table of this Natural History Museum laboratory are stunning to behold -- all enhanced by Kurt Landisman’s lighting design and the projections of Theodore J.H. Hulsker.  A subtle buzzing noise can be heard in the midst of music in Mr. Hulsker’s sound design (almost leading one to swat at some imaginary fly-by).  Brooke Jennings completes this outstanding Creative Team, designing wardrobes that highlight the four differing and unique personalities fluttering about before us.

The signals continue to flicker on and off among these four would-be lovers, but nothing is certain in nature.  There is a lot of chance and randomness.  In the world of entomology, at some point the right signals hopefully connect.  In Melissa Ross’ An Entomologist’s Love Story, we wait and watch to see if the same is true in the complicated world of humans.  Her world premiere at San Francisco Playhouse should cause quite the buzz among theatregoers in the Bay Area who are looking for a stimulating, light-hearted, off-beat story of maybe-yes, maybe-no romance.

Rating: 4.5 E

An Entomologist’s Love Story continues through June 23, 2018 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

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