New York City Theater
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
It sounds like a gimmick: two people continually replay their relationship, with minor variations each time. Nick Payne’s haunting, infinitely moving “Constellations” may owe something to Harold Pinter and J. B. Priestley – two writers who play with time and chance – but his work has a trajectory all its own. On a bare platform, no scenery except countless numbers of white balloons, symbols of both buoyancy and death, a couple meet, fall in love, conflict and face eternity. As much as we think we know about them, we know so little. Yet, paradoxically, we know enough.
These are Marianne and Roland, she a cosmologist, he a beekeeper. As portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal (as warm here as he was in “Brokeback Mountain”) and the marvelous Ruth Wilson (who won a Golden Globe for TV’s “The Affair), the 70-minute evening is as bracing as a snowstorm.
The setting is the Multiverse. “The basic laws of physics don’t have a past and a present,” explains Marianne. “Despite our best efforts, there are certain microscopic observations that just cannot be predicted absolutely. Now, potentially, one way of explaining this is to draw the conclusion that, at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously.”
To which Roland replies, “This is genuinely turning me on, you do realize?”
Obviously, then, despite talk about cosmology, quantum theory, existence, atoms, molecules, symmetry, free will and the like, “Constellations” comes down to a story about essentials: sex and mortality. Countering Marianne’s explanations on the universe is Roland’s expounding on the routine of bees, where male drones have sex with the queen and female workers do all the foraging.
“If only our existence were that simple,” says Roland. “If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing.”
If all this sounds simplistic, pretentious twaddle about the joys and futility of relationships, it’s not. The off-again, on-again, back-and-forth of Payne’s style ensures a tightening of the knot where two people exist both in and out of reality. Marianne and Roland transcend science even as they are forced to obey its laws.
The evening is as amusing as it is sobering, exhilarating as it is troubled, due to a production that makes the printed page breathe with nuances. Although he has only two actors on Tom Scutt’s minimal set at all times, Michael Longhurst’s direction is anything but static. Gyllenhaal’s demeanor is puppy-ish, needy, empathetic and engaging but also filled with insecurities and yearnings.
As good as he is, it’s Ruth Wilson who commands the evening. Seductive, capricious, whip-smart, assured yet frightened and searching, Wilson is giving what is surely one of the season’s best performances. She and Gyllenhaal make a boy-meets-girl tale into an experience that encompasses the interpenetration of past, present and future.
--David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 25, 2015