In Constellations, what happens is just as important as what might have happened.
Nick Payne’s play concerns two young people who meet, fall in love, quarrel, break up, reunite, get engaged, and deal with a life-changing disease. Or maybe not. Maybe none of that happens. Or only some of it does. And that’s what makes Nick Payne’s play so intriguing.
At the beginning of the play we see several short scenes, each a minute or so in length, which present different versions of how Roland and Marianne meet. In some versions, he rejects her impish pickup lines, claiming he has a girlfriend or a wife. But in other versions, she says the same lines in a lower, sexier voice, and he is intrigued. And they’re off.
Roland is a beekeeper who sells his own honey. His specialized, practical outlook on life is much different from that of Marianne, a theoretical physicist fascinated by quantum mechanics. She talks to him about the concept of how “we’re just particles… molecules, quarks and atoms,” and how “if every possible future exists,” then anything is possible.
This theory provides the basis for Constellations, as we see Roland and Marianne’s lives as they live out “every possible future.” Throughout the play, scenes are repeated once, twice, or even eight times in a row, each time with a slight variation or a major variation. And every time words get repeated, they inspire a different reaction from the other person, forcing the plot to take a different turn.
Constellations only runs 70 minutes, and its short running time points to one of the play’s flaws: that Payne runs out of possibilities for Roland and Marianne too early. And the play gives way to cliché at times: it’s noteworthy that Constellations is one of two plays opening in Philadelphia this week in which the main female character learns she has a fatal illness that is robbing her of her memory and her power of speech. (The other is Informed Consent at the Lantern Theater Company.)
But Constellations is suffused with a stirring romanticism that transcends its limitations. You can’t help but be touched by their attempts to connect with each other. And if all that stuff about alternate realities sounds confusing, don’t worry: Tea Alagić’s direction keeps the story clear and involving no matter how much it bends.
Sarah Gliko and Jered McLenigan make the most of their demanding roles. Each uses subtle variations in delivery – a changed inflection, a lowered pitch, a dramatic pause – to change the texture of a scene. (Their gentle English accents add authenticity but are never obtrusive.) And their attitudes toward each other – his more anxious and apprehensive, hers more relaxed and playful – are consistent and well-defined, even in a scene performed entirely in sign language. Their performances are thoroughly captivating.
Matt Saunders’ sleek set design provides a good contrast with Becky Bodurtha’s casual costumes. And Masha Tsimring’s lighting design and Elizabeth Atkinson’s sound design add subtle touches that help to set off the mini-scenes.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.