“An Entomologist’s Love Story,” Melissa Ross’ world premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, is not the romantic comedy that its title suggests.
But it begins — and continues for a while — as though it were.
Earnest and awkward Jeff (an endearing, low-key Lucas Verbrugghe) and Betty (Lori Prince), who’s loud, funny and abrasive, are research scientists in the entomology lab at New York’s Museum of Natural History. They’re single, in their mid-30s and looking for love.
The two hooked up eons ago, but it didn’t work out. Now they’re best friends. Betty meets men on dating websites, but she’s cynical; she says she has to dumb herself down to attract them.
Jeff insists smart men like him prefer equally smart women. “Men like a challenge,” he says.
Cue the too-cute arrival of perky, not-so-bright Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll), who had called the lab to ask about some worrisome insect bites on her leg (and who on earth would call the Museum of Natural History about that?). Jeff is instantly smitten. And Betty is jealous — but not exactly in the way you might think.
From that point on, Ross ventures into a much more nuanced storyline.
But prior to that, there’s the problem of Betty. She’s downright annoying (no fault of Prince, who’s terrific) for too long. Her nonstop snarky jokes and put-downs quickly start to feel like an attempt on the playwright’s part to keep the audience entertained; the merriment feels forced.
Then there’s Lindsay, an underdeveloped character, and one that Carroll plays in such squeaky-voiced dumb-bunny fashion, under Giovanna Sardelli’s otherwise fine-tuned direction, that Ross’ more serious intentions are undermined — one of which is to reveal how ordinary folks like Lindsay (and like the man Betty meets by chance on a park bench, beautifully played by Will Springhorn, Jr.) can have a kind of wisdom and empathy unrelated to intellectual achievement.
Still, the play, so beautifully designed (with a detailed, rotating set by Nina Ball and projections by Theodore J.H. Hulsker), is rich and satisfying. Among its delights are fascinating facts about the mating habits of such insects as praying mantises and fireflies, which provide an interesting contrast to the convoluted ways we brainy, neurotic humans meet and mate.
Bookended by contrasting entomology lectures, this is ultimately an affecting, wistful story, full of hope for the way we non-insects can learn to connect.
An Entomologist’s Love Story
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: Kensington Park Hotel, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 23
Tickets: $20 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org