by Loren Noveck · January 18, 2015
Jake Gyllenhaal, Ruth Wilson | Joan Marcus
Nick Payne’s Constellations, on the surface, is a high-concept love story whose structure draws on quantum cosmology: specifically, the many-worlds version of the multiverse, in which every possible universe exists simultaneously, and every possible alternate history or future that could have happened, does in fact happen in one of those alternate universes. Here, that idea means that every possible outcome of an encounter between two people can exist simultaneously, or in parallel: Roland and Marianne meet at a barbecue, but one of them is married, and that’s the end of that. And: They meet at a barbecue, but one of them is just out of a long-term relationship, and isn’t ready for someone new, and that’s the end of that. And: They meet at a barbecue, and really hit it off, and eventually go on a date. And so on, through various milestones of their relationship (though not entirely in chronological order, because of course all the pasts, presents, and futures are simultaneous), from the first night they do or do not spend together, to a break-up, to a chance re-encounter, to a potentially fatal illness. We only see their lives through the prism of this central relationship; we hear about Roland’s work as a beekeeper and Marianne’s as a scientist only as they explain their jobs to each other.
But the high concept ends up feeling more like a veneer or a gimmick than a genuine innovation in dramaturgical structure, a philosophical inquiry, or even an interesting look at the science involved. (Marianne gets a few choice opportunities to explain quantum theory and modern physics, and there are of course parallels between what she says and the way the play is structured, but in a very simple way). Sometimes it seems like Payne is being ingenious mainly as an exercise, a way to have his storytelling cake and eat it too. Do Marianne and Roland get their relationship off the ground, or get stuck because one of them is already married? Yes. Do they break up because Roland cheats or because Marianne does? Yes. Is it Roland or Marianne who goes on to another satisfying relationship? Yes. Certain particular events seem to be the constants: in all the versions, when they meet again, it’s at a ballroom dance class; in all the versions, it’s Marianne who will become ill. (Which the play flashes forward to reveal early on, and then keeps circling back to.)
Where the play succeeds is in giving the actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, and the director, Michael Longhurst, a bravura showcase of technique. Each time a line, or a snippet of a scene, or an entire scene time-slips (marked by a burst of staticky sound and a sudden shift of light), the actors get another “take,” as it were: the chance to play the same scene with different but equally specific and precise acting choices: a different emotional coloration or a different objective. And it is clever as an acting and directing challenge, because in many cases, those different choices end up being different routes to the same place; the characters are basically the same people in all the versions, but their actions and choices are different.
At the same time, though, the way Payne clusters the choice points around significant milestones in that relationship (their meeting, their first real date, their biggest fight, etc.) means we never see the relationship endure, and we never feel the emotional weight of it. I enjoyed both Wilson’s and Gyllenhaal’s work intellectually--watching the craft of it--but never really understood what brought these two people together in the first place or certainly what kept them together (in most of the iterations, anyway, or at least the ones that carry through to the end of the play). Their work is enormously effective without being particularly affecting, even as the characters go through moments of enormous joy, fear, loss.
It feels like potential is being wasted here; in the hands of, say, Tom Stoppard or Caryl Churchill, or even David Ives (whose short play “Sure Thing” featured a similar structure used for comic effect), the technical ingenuity might have been used to say something larger, something about memory or storytelling, something about the nature of art or the nature of love. Here, the gloss of cosmology and theoretical physics makes the play seem serious, but it’s really a way for actors to show off their chops.
Visually, the production is very attractive in a stripped-down way, with a sea of white balloons (designed by Tom Scutt) standing as an elegant visual metaphor for the multiple universes theorized by the play, and constant subtle shifts in the lighting (designed by Lee Curran) representing the universe slips. But it feels like a series of missed opportunities to do something more than a clever love story, a chance to use the iterative possibilities of theater and the fascinating concepts of science to speak to something larger.