Did someone just press rewind on this play? Only a few minutes into Constellations, a drama by Nick Payne imported to Broadway from London, every scene starts to repeat and mutate. It’s as if someone keeps reaching for the remote and replaying each segment two or three times, until something different happens. We’re watching two young lovers, Roland and Marianne (Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson), holding intimate conversations at various key points in their lives.
Every time the dialogue happens again, this ordinary duo’s words and gestures look and sound identical — until suddenly the conversation shifts and ends differently. In the alternative universe, a spat is avoided with a more sensitive choice of words. A better — or worse — personal choice is made.
Hey, don’t blame all these do-overs on the newcomers onstage. This production might mark Gyllenhaal’s and Wilson’s much-anticipated Broadway debuts, but both already hold their own as seasoned stage actors. Nope, all this rewinding is deeply purposeful. As the physicist Marianne tells us, our lives take part in the “Quantum Multiverse.” Just imagine:
“Every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast
ensemble of parallel universes.”
In Payne’s affecting but ponderous play, life-altering moments coexist onstage the same way they do in your mind. What you could have said, what you should have done, and what you actually did — all are equally vivid and real.
On one level Constellations tackles the theme of time. A forest of white balloons on the set doubles as festive décor (from the party where the youngsters first meet) and as expressions of sympathy (in the tearjerker late scenes). But the play also takes an anguished look at the fragile and frustrating act of communication with loved ones. Marianne and Roland behave awkwardly in romance and discover strains in their relationship, rifts made wider, or healed, by words. Payne carefully keeps this boy-meets-girl tale barebones, with a minimum of character information; that makes it easy to project your own struggles onto the couple’s.
Although he plays a nerdy, fumbling beekeeper, Gyllenhaal brings a steady,
assured presence to this two-hander. He’s the bigger star stateside, of course, but it makes an even pairing. Wilson — best known to Yanks from her role on Showtime’s The Affair — plugs in to a high wattage as the alert, tightly wound Marianne. She’s especially fine in the late sections, when a health crisis forces the scientist to confront her vulnerabilities.
If something feels slightly familiar here, perhaps that’s because Constellations is textbook British “blackout” drama, the kind proliferated by London’s Royal Court Theatre in the 1990s, with time jumps and short interrupted narrative fragments. (Indeed this production, calibrated by director Michael Longhurst, originated at the Royal Court in 2012.)
Time, Marianne eventually tells the distraught Roland, is irrelevant but symmetrical. “We have all the time we’ve
always had,” she explains. Payne’s conclusion brings the play’s moving parts
together with admirable slickness and powerful sentiment. But this harmonious synthesis of Marianne’s beloved quantum physics and her spiritual surrender feels just a little too neat. There’s a hint of contrivance in this carefully wrought script that even two accomplished star performances can’t completely transcend — no matter how many times they rewind.