Sometimes the calculus of love is as difficult to get a handle on as quantum physics. Take, for instance, Lily, the heroine of Jacquelyn Reingold's soft, sweet, brainy comedy, "String Fever." She's 40 and single, and anxious about both. But what should she do about it? Set her sights on the attentive if inconstant Frank? Take another chance on seriously damaged Matthew? Seek a sperm sample from Gisli, her old Icelandic comedian pal?
Reingold tosses into the amusing romantic stew concerns about everything from etiquette to mortality, and the result at Theater J is a gentle examination of issues prosaic as well as profound. Lily's gruff father, prone to long digressions about the state of his bowels, is in the grips of a spirit-sapping divorce, and her best friend, having moved to Iowa to be with a man, discovers she has cancer. In the world of "String Fever," no one's path is straight and narrow, and no one's heart too healthy to ward off fresh hurt.
Okay, that doesn't sound groundbreaking. "String Fever" does not pretend to go where no play's gone before: The time-clock worries of forty-something women unlucky in love have been documented across the entertainment spectrum. The playwright, however, has enough of a way with words and rhythms and amorous complications to give the 90-minute comedy a pleasant voice of its own. And the mixing in of science -- Lily's newest lover, a physicist, is a leading expert on string theory -- provides an engaging motif for Reingold's take on the chaos and randomness of the mating game.
Theater J's production offers some enjoyable performances, especially from the gravel-voiced Conrad Feininger as Lily's blunt-spoken dad and Steve Brady as the cross-dependent and hot-wired Icelandic comic who keeps Lily abreast of his dysfunctions via video mail. As Lily, Melinda Wade carries herself with the genial authority of a woman who knows her own limitations. You feel welcome to take a seat in her ongoing kaffeeklatsch.
At times, though, Peg Denithorne's direction underlines too strenuously an artificial quality in Reingold's storytelling. "String Fever" bounces peripatetically from one disjointed, fragmentary scene to the next, and the persuasiveness of those sequences varies greatly. When, for instance, Lily is under sedation on a doctor's examination table and begins imagining a kaleidoscopic variety of next chapters to her relationship with troubled Matthew (Field Blauvelt), the scene lacks the comic vitality that such whimsical dreaming might inspire. And while Brady's vivacious Gisli gives the production a needed infusion of energy -- Brady's "on" in the manner of an over-caffeinated morning talk show host -- the performance could stand at times to be modulated a bit more subtly.
Lily, however, remains the intriguing center of a flawed and fickle world of the human psyche. On her dates with smooth and sturdy Frank (Gary Sloan), she's strangely consoled by his explanations about the principles of string theory, which suggest at the same time a sense of order and disorder in the universe. Events, too, in the lives of people in Lily's orbit seem reflections of mysterious, unfathomable patterns. Her best friend, Janey (Lynn Chavis), for instance, is stricken with illness at the very moment she finally finds contentment. Lily's father, Artie, on the other hand, is abandoned by a woman just as his health is restored.
And the rationales for what keeps people together or drives them apart are rendered as frustratingly, if recognizably enigmatic: A man who seems to love Lily ultimately tells her he'd rather stay at home with his cat.
The air of the unpredictable, the sense of not knowing what happens after one turns the page, wafts through "String Fever" and makes it more of a mirror of our own tenuous reality. Denithorne, who directed a first-rate revival of Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly" at Theater J in 2003, enhances the idea of the fishbowl by imbuing this production with an "Our Town" quality: When they are not in a scene, actors take seats at the back of stage and watch like the rest of us.
It all takes place on a shiny, bare stage designed by Anne Gibson, with dark walls inscribed with musical notations (Lily and Matthew are musicians). Reingold fills the space nonetheless with her refreshing musings about how we all struggle to string together lives, one challenging strand after another.
String Fever, by Jacquelyn Reingold. Directed by Peg Denithorne. Lighting, Daniel Conway; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; sound, Bryan Miller. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 27 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.