Formulas aren't always bad.
And in the case of An Entomologist's Love Story, which just had its world premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, the formula of the four-person comedy involving two would-be couples and one uncomfortable love triangle gets a new twist via the fresh writing of playwright Melissa Ross.
Ross began writing the piece as a proposal for a Sloan Commission, which provides grants for the development of new plays that focus on science and technology. But the play isn't so much about entomology as it is framed by it, and its two central characters are, indeed, entomologists working in a lab at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Betty (Lori Prince) and Jeff (Lucas Verbrugghe) have worked together for years, hooked up a while back, but are now good friends and coworkers who are quick to make jokes at each others' expense. Betty is smart, cutting, and profane, and complains about not being able to find any decent love prospects on dating apps—though she enjoys all the plentiful, meaningless sex. Jeff is nerdy and sweet and relationship-oriented, and it isn't long before he invites a young woman down to the lab who calls in with some frightened questions about a possible bed bug infestation.
That young woman, Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll), is conventionally cute and perky and everything that Betty is not, and Betty's jealousy is palpable and uncomfortable because, as is clear from the opening scene, she still keeps a torch burning for Jeff.
The entomology framework consists of opening and closing monologues by Betty that are, we're told, parts of a layman-friendly lecture she gives at local colleges on "bug sex." And apart from the lovely and stylized lab set by Nina Ball and the quickly resolved plot point about Lindsay and her bed-bug scare, insects and the science of studying them do not figure largely in An Entomologist's Love Story. Instead, Betty's brief lecture fragments just add some unique color to an otherwise formulaic play about human relationships and the ways in which they nurture and trap us. (The fourth character, by the way, Andy, is a potential love interest for Betty whom she meets IRL, on a park bench, played by the affable Will Springhorn, Jr.) Like many modern "love stories," this one does not end predictably well, though perhaps it ends with Betty learning something about her own ego, and about self-delusion. It also feels like there's a message in here about how tough it can be out there, dating-wise, for smart women with multiple degrees who can't pretend being submissive.
Giovanna Sardelli's direction keeps the piece moving and shows empathy for all the characters, in particular Betty, who is the emotional heart of the play.
Ultimately, Ross gives us an unvarnished, unflinching look at the frustrations of a modern, educated woman who has spent most of adulthood so far focused on her career. It's far more complicated and lonely than the simple mating practices of the insects Betty studies, which ends up making her story about praying mantis females biting off the heads of their mates all the more quaint. If only it were that simple.
// An Entomologist's Love Story plays through June 23ed at SF Playhouse, sfplayhouse.org.
This review originally appeared on Opening Night SF.