"Are human emotions comparable to chemical substances in their tendency to combine with certain substances in preference to others?" asks the hero of Keith Huff's smartly original yet still-forming romantic dramedy "Pursued by Happiness," in which human issues butt up against the science of attraction.
Meet 40-something Eli Lilly biochemist Frank Orlis (Mark St. Amant), the sole attendee at an early-morning in-house seminar on horizontal integration. Colleague Julie Moore (Avery Clyde), the lecturer, struggles to maintain clinical reserve in the face of disappointing no-shows, PowerPoint malfunctions, and nervously loquacious Frank. At a subsequent lunchtime encounter, Julie intimates interest. On their first date, Frank proposes. She provisionally accepts, on two conditions: see how the sex goes, then meet each other's parents. Huff skips the sex and presents the folks, both couples brilliantly portrayed by Tom Knickerbocker and Elizabeth Herron. Embedded in the muck of each dysfunctional marriage is a dark secret that their respective kids carry. From there, all bets are off.
Huff ("The Bird and Mr. Banks," "A Steady Rain") traces his narrative with quirky wit and colloquial skill ("Julie Moore, I wouldn't know how to make you if I were handed a toolbox and a set of instructions"). His sharp theatrical senses, however, have yet to locate the proper balance between character traits and human logic, cause and effect, inference and explication. The scope of the revelations falls rather beyond what short-form structure can accommodate, leaving more unanswered questions than resolutions by the hastily achieved ending.
Fortunately, director Robin Larsen's marvelous modernist staging and an accomplished cast drive the show, wedding enigmatic naturalism to satiric comment. Designer Craig Siebels does a shrewd scenic job, with invaluable help from Jeremy Pivnick's multilevel lighting, Jocelyn Hublau's costumes that help us instantly identify much about the characters, David B. Marling's thematic sound, and Adam Flemming's impressive projections.
St. Amant and Clyde make an edgy, endearing pair, handling the brainy humor and behavioral hairpin turns with considerable nuance. Knickerbocker and Herron display remarkable versatility as the parents, and they're hilarious in their sidebar turns as enthusiastic waiters. The pleasures of such able company mainly compensate for the involving yet problematic text, making this offbeat conversation-starter a genuine thinking person's date show.
Presented by and at the Road Theatre, Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. March 25–May 14. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (877) 369-9112 or www.roadtheatre.org.