We learn about the mating habits of bees, the praying mantis, and fireflies in An Entomologist’s Love Story (at SF Playhouse) by Melissa Ross. What starts as a museum lecture by Betty (Lori Prince), an entomologist at the beginning of her career, transforms, butterfly-like, into something else by the end, a kind of bug poetics. The playwright leads us to believe that she’s making an analogy between the well-studied patterns of insect sex and a pair of humans who study them. But the way men and women fall in love is less predictable and more complicated than a female praying mantis devouring her male lover after an enjoyable afternoon of green-skinned coitus.
Lindsay shares an office with fellow entomologist and her former lover Jeff (Lucas Verbrugghe). Their breakup was an amicable one and after years of studying and working together, they’ve settled into a comfortable friendship. They tease each other and finish each other’s sentences. That dynamic shifts when Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll) calls their office asking about a rash on her skin. She’s caught the tiny offender that’s bitten her. Hoping that it’s not a bed bug, Lindsay wants to bring the creature in so they can identify it. It seems that entomologists don’t live alone in ivory towers — they also assuage the general public’s concerns about irritating, invasive creatures.
As Jeff, Verbrugghe has developed a lovely, loping stride. It indicates how much of his interior life he keeps inside of himself. He wears glasses, often pushing them back against the crook of his nose. They’re a prop he uses to avoid eye contact and confrontation. Jeff wants to compromise and keep the peace; it’s Betty who’s the alpha. She says and does what she pleases, forceful with her opinions and if not rude then not exactly polite either. Betty’s unapologetic about who she is, funky and strident at times, but not entirely satisfied with her life. When Jeff and Lindsay start to date, it feels to her like she too has been stung by some unidentifiable thing.
Jessica Lynn Carroll gives Lindsay, an elementary school teacher, an enjoyable kookiness. Her voice and mannerisms come across as a more vivid, empowered Snow White who would never be naive enough to eat a poisoned apple. In comparison with Betty, she dresses herself in stereotypically feminine attire, in skirts and brighter colors. Betty is unfussy about her appearance and wears T-shirts and jeans. When Lindsay and Betty meet, Betty takes stock of her prettiness and dismisses her outright as another one of Jeff’s lightweight soon-to-be ex-girlfriends.
Ross prepares us for Betty’s attitude by writing a monologue for her about the ways in which women, namely herself, someone who holds a PhD, dumb themselves down when dating men. She hears the higher pitch in Lindsay’s voice and senses a false front in her girlishness. Betty’s quick to judge a book by its covers. But what she doesn’t know, and soon learns, is that Lindsay isn’t a pushover who’s dumbing herself down to keep Jeff’s attention. Shortly after they meet, Betty leaves Jeff and Lindsay alone in the office and they have a disagreement. Jeff says something that comes across as misinformed and condescending. But Lindsay is just as tough, thoughtful and intelligent as Betty is. She’s more than capable of challenging Jeff and standing up for herself despite the pliability implied by her outward appearance and affect.
The apostrophe in the title of the play is there for a reason. Jeff and Lindsay’s romance is actually a subplot that acts as a catalyst for Betty to question her own behavior when it comes to men. An Entomologist’s Love Story is her story, the arc of someone questioning their cynical conclusions about what it means to love someone. Does she, in fact, have to play dumb to be with someone? Her theory is tested when she meets Andy (Will Springhorn Jr.) on a park bench outside of the museum. In one of the loveliest closing monologues of a contemporary play that I’ve seen in the past few years, Betty explains the meaning behind the bioluminescent signals that fireflies emit from their lower abdomens. She’s moved away from the idea of bugs that eat their mates to ones who are able to see the light.
An Entomologist’s Love Story, through June 23, at S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St. $30-$100; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph