In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes, theoretical physicist Marianne (Ruth Wilson) rattles off to the Roland (Jake Gyllenhaal), a beekeeper from Mile End.
He replies: “This is genuinely turning me on.”
The scene – a drunken, awkward attempt at a seduction – is only one of a series of iterations, played again and again and again and again, each time with Marianne trying to explain the science of the choices we make and the ones we do not. In one “universe”, the pair end up in bed together. In another, flat delivery and chilly reception signal to the audience the end of their beginning.
Constellations is the story of the possibilities of the relationship between Marianne and Roland, constructed in a wholly original way: each life milestone (cute meet, breakup, marriage, death) is played with different outcomes and circumstances. The concept is helped along by clever set design; beautiful in its elegance, the play is a visual feast. The ceiling is hung with white balloons intermixed with spherical lights in a variety of sizes, recalling stars or far-off galaxies. Long ribbons link each one and the sparse black neon-lit platform that bears the two actors. Scene changes (Payne’s script charmingly notes: “a change in universe”) correspond to varying combinations of lights and colours. Constellations fulfils the utmost tenet of theatre craft to not overwhelm, but to complement.
With such stripped down staging, the entire play hinges on the ingenuity of the actors. They are successful, if not wholly satisfying. Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson are pleasing to watch, delivering lines with sharp comic timing. They ooze with energy that can be felt all the way at the back of the theatre. However, their weakness comes down to chemistry. In comic scenes, the pair riff off each other well, but there isn’t the crackle of attraction at scenes of romantic intimacy. They fall short of truly engaging, almost but not quite achieving the tension the play inherently represents in its exploration of possibility.
These possibilities are exploited to great effect by the ingenuity of the director, Michael Longhurst, the original director of the production’s London run. The play’s pacing holds well, running back and forth between “universes” with nary a breath in between, almost as if simulating the infinitesimal pauses we take between word choice. Longhurst’s direction works well with Payne’s writing. The playwright infuses his play with such an air of Britain about it that one wonders if Roland’s quip about “soggy sausages” really gets across to this New York crowd. Longhurst’s direction smoothes it. Careful selection and emphasis allow for the bridging of cultural disparities, and for the heart of Payne’s work to truly shine.
Payne’s writing is witty, and his characters charm easily. He follows in the footsteps of great conversation auteurs. The originality of Payne’s play is a breath of fresh air, a reprieve from the theatre-world’s current obsession with adaptation and reiteration. The work is imaginative, and in its scarcity, possibility and experimentation thrive; this is the magic that the play performs. Recurring scenes are never the same, yet even as each variation of a choice branches off away into the distance, sometimes the audience is returned to a familiar “universe”. Payne’s sensitivity for stagecraft and the multiplicity of how a scene’s variation underscores the entire play. The audience is hung in a state of perpetual stasis, and left wondering: does our will have any say in anything, as Roland questions, or do we have no say in the direction of our lives? The variation is played in the counterpoint between the brightly lit course of Marianne and Roland’s life together versus the black box finality of Marianne’s death. Payne’s play suspends us in a place where we are constantly holding our breath for the next possibility, even as we are still looking back at what could have been – or will be.