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Theater Review: Complete - A Hot Mess With Good Intentions

03/15/2013 06:12 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013

Watching Complete, a new play written by Andrea Kuchlewska, directed by Jennifer Chambers and having its West Coast premiere at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles, left me -- ironically enough -- with the experience of being "ambivalent and incomplete" which may be a more apt title for this play. Billed as a "fast-paced comedy," the play explores linguistics, blind faith and a controversial enlightenment program developed early in the 1970s called "est". While the playwright doesn't name "est" specifically in the play itself, the program and supporting materials makes no bones that she's really talking about it.

Let me lay a few biases on the table up front: I appreciate rigor in language, as I have earned my Juris Doctorate and passed the California Bar Exam. I'm also a theater person, having run my own theater company for several years. And I'm a humorist, committed to getting more women's stories onto stage and screen. Both Gloria Steinem and Werner Erhard, the creator of "est" have been major influences in my life. (I was an "early adopter" to both radical feminism and est.) Steinem and Erhard both became punching bags in the mainstream media, I believe for reasons beyond the scope of this review. In my own memoir solo play, Now That She's Gone, I say, "I must face my cowardice daily to stand up for both of them. But if I can't stand up for two leaders I love just in case people won't like me, how would I have been in Anne Frank's time when the consequences were life and death, not just bad opinions?"

Complete is written beautifully, with lots of fascinating threads weaving in and out, as well as masterfully directed with a deft hand, but the pattern that emerges from the tapestry is wonky, confusing and not comedic. In fact there's little sense of humor in it all, taking itself WAY too seriously.

The protagonist, Eve, played by Meredith Bishop, comes off as someone who has severe issues that are possibly related to either undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome, PTSD from childhood sexual abuse and/or merely someone with a truly wretched personality. Who knows? Whatever the cause, she's not funny. No one in the audience was laughing at or with this hot mess of a human being.

I really wanted to care about Eve but just couldn't, even though I admired Bishop for her portrayal of a deeply flawed character. I ended up rooting for Micah, played by Scott Kruse. Micah is Eve's colleague and companion in their shared graduate program in linguistics. Kruse's Micah is believable as a geeky guy, overwhelmed by stage fright, who wants to grow and happens to be smitten by Eve. If I were friends with Micah in real life, I'd be tempted to take him aside and say, "Run! This woman is NUTS! She needs serious therapy." In classic storytelling parlance, Eve's character has virtually no arc, where Micah's character does. Eve only goes from bad to worse.

There's a Zen saying: "You become that which you resist." Eve rants about her terrible experience with The Program, which she took as a child, then again when she was 16, and finally as an undergraduate while researching a paper for her degree in linguistics. She comes away from the 3rd experience with a severe case of "backlash." She's disgusted with the jargon of the program and its damaging misuse of the word "create," which she at core blames for her life being screwed up -- all the while using most of the language and syntax of the program. I felt badly for her, but at the same time put off. She admits she thinks people need to do the program because they are so screwed up. She is insufferable, and gloms onto her personal view of virtually everything as "the answer," all the while deriding graduates of The Program for the very same rigidity which she has in spades.

Then, since Micah's sister "witnesses" that The Program transformed her life, Micah sneaks off to participate in it, unbeknownst to Eve. He then becomes the more sympathetic character and more of a mensch after the program. He's far more relatable. It's hard for me to imagine someone buying Eve's point-of-view unless they already have a negative experience of est, in which case, she'd buoy up their pre-existing opinion.

The other cast members are more or less "stock" characters; Evie, played by Tess Oswalt, is the young version of Eve and plays a one-girl Greek Chorus commenting and furthering the story of Eve. Ostensibly, an important part of "Complete" is the damage that can be done to children when they grow up within a linguistically rigid, jargon fraught "fringe" sub-culture. While a fascinating topic, that wasn't an obvious through-line in the production. Maybe another play at another time? Jack, played by Scott Victor Nelson, is the all-purpose, somewhat compassionate, somewhat smarmy "program leader." Nelson hit some good notes but was fulfilling a more or less cartoonish role.

It's tempting as a reviewer to rue the play that "could have been," especially when there's so much talent, passion and energy in the production. I am afraid that the focus on the misuse of the word "create" missed a few larger issues. Let me back up for a second.

In real life, there were definitely jerks who did the training who went out proclaiming, "I can create parking spaces!" to which I remember Werner Erhard saying, "Really? Let's see you create one right here. Go ahead. No parking space? Try creating 'no gravity' then. Doesn't work, does it?" Another set of socially inept people used their two weekend est experience to enhance the already obnoxious character they entered the training with. I also remember people getting upset -- and well they should have -- when these same yahoos would say, "The Jews created the Holocaust." I was deeply offended by that myself.

And I'm an old "est-hole," meaning that I was one of those enthusiastic "You gotta do this! It transformed my life!" people.

The deeper, and I think more profound, question lies with the difference between blame and responsibility. What so many people came away from the est experience with: the choice between blaming very real circumstances or people for the way one's life has turned out vs. accepting responsibility for determining the course of one's life from that moment forward.

What is it that causes one person to be in a concentration camp and come out as one of the most important philosphers of our time -- like Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning? -- while another comes out (understandably so) with a life completely enmeshed in bitterness and hatred? What is that altruistic element that has Eve's mother, a survivor of a homicidal, violent husband, decide to do whatever she can to have her daughter NOT have to experience what she did, as opposed to giving up and living a life of self-medicating with food, booze or drugs? Dare I say it? Frankl and Eve's mother had an existential "choice" to be responsible for how they would go forward, even with unspeakable horror in their pasts.

I have witnessed innumerable people within est coming to similar epiphanies and living fulfilling, powerful lives: "I can live my life at the effect of (fill in the blank), or this particular (name tragic event here)" or "I can live a life that I create that's useful and of service." Is it a panacea for EVERYTHING in the world? No. But it does require a certain facility with paradox, and that facility with paradox is what I see as a huge missing piece in "Complete," which makes me hope that it's a work in progress and not literally complete.

NOTE: You can see production photographs by clicking here