‘An Entomologist’s Love Story’ will probably bug you

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When a chivalrous male bedbug gets a hard-on for a beautiful female bedbug, it wastes no time on courtship. It stabs the female directly in the abdomen with its paramere (bug penis) and ejaculates into her body cavity before proudly dismounting. It’s a process known as traumatic insemination, and it’s the romance that serves as the opening for “An Entomologist’s Love Story.”

According to San Francisco Playhouse’s artistic director Bill English, “An Entomologist’s Love Story” is “informed by the sexual politics of today” — what English means to say is that this play is about three white heterosexual relationships. Harvard and Cornell graduate Betty (Lori Prince) struggles with dumbing herself down for men, while entomologist Jeff (Lucas Verbrugghe) is too dorky and awkward to get girls. Will Hunting — sorry, we mean Andy (Will Springhorn Jr.) — is overlooked because he’s a janitor, despite being incredibly cultured and thoughtful. Disney princess-incarnate Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll) wishes that women weren’t expected to have careers and doesn’t identify as a feminist.

Betty describes herself as “awkward but complicated,” to which Andy jokes that just about everybody is. In execution, however, these quirky adjectives can manifest in potentially problematic ways, such as when Betty vents her jealousy by attacking other women, when Lindsay persuades her boyfriend of just one week to become distant with his best friend of several decades and when Jeff randomly interrupts girls to kiss them while they’re speaking.

If playwright Melissa Ross introduces these troubling instances so that we may be forced to confront their implications, she falls short of this goal, as characters aren’t ultimately held accountable for their harmful choices — on certain occasions, they’re even rewarded. As society grapples with the consequences of sexual violence, underrepresented communities demand space for different sexual identities and new questions are raised about monogamy, consensual sex, family planning and more, this play simply doesn’t feel like it’s doing enough to challenge its audience or its characters.

Whether or not a character amounts to more than the sum of their vices is entirely in the hands of the actor — and while characters themselves may not have made the most agreeable or sensible choices, the show’s cast of four did turn in a particularly strong set of performances. Conversations felt organic and almost improvised, and the emotions underlying each line felt grounded and truthful.

Prince in particular shines during an especially intense monologue, which concludes with a tearfully delivered reference to a J.D. Salinger quote — “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” Even if you spent the entirety of the one-hour, 45-minute runtime distractedly admiring the rather gorgeous set display of bugs, Prince’s charisma would have almost certainly commanded your attention. It’s likely that Verbrugghe could have had a similar moment to shine, had his character not been written to be so vague and elusive about his personal life.

It is a wonder though, with so much sexual tension building up in the museum’s research facilities, that its entomologists ever actually do anything scientific. Just as one character is about to start examining specimens, another character kick-starts a conversation and their work grinds to a halt. The play promises intriguing parallels between “the mating rituals of bugs” and the relationships explored by our two protagonists, but it’s surprising just how little entomology feels relevant to the narrative.

The show’s originality is anchored in these parallels, but they’re not as fleshed out as they could be. Occasional references to bed bugs and a charming monologue about male fireflies risking death by cannibalism just to get laid aren’t quite enough to overcome the familiarity of a story that’s really just about millennial sexual dynamics that don’t even represent more than a frustratingly restricted view of modern relationships. In other words, “An Entomologist’s Love Story” could have been about pretty much anybody, but in a way that’s oversimplified and maybe even obsolete.

Then again, maybe that’s the point. But the people paid to see some goddamn bug sex.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].