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Who wouldn’t like a do-over, the opportunity to replay a moment in their lives in the hopes of achieving a more favorable (or at least different) outcome? In British playwright Nick Payne’s absorbing and moving new drama Constellations, the central couple do just that. They play the same scene multiple times, dozens of short scenes over the course of a fleet 70 minutes.
The driving force of this phenomenon is not a genie or a fairy godmother. Or even the fact that it’s Groundhog Day. It’s theoretical physics and string theory, the specialty of Cambridge University researcher Marianne (Ruth Wilson). As she tells Roland (Jake Gyllenhaal), a beekeeper (!) whom she meets at an outdoor BBQ party, “at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously. … In the Quantum Multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”
And so we get multiple versions of the same moments in this couple’s life together. In some, she’s the one who cheats with a colleague. In others, it’s him. He can be angry, frustrated, or merely shocked at the revelation. In one fascinating scene, the couple communicate entirely in sign language — suggesting whole new possibilities for the quirks of fate that may have led them to that point.
But the basic arc of the story remains consistent, including the perhaps slightly too schematic health diagnosis that will separate the couple and bring some emotional weight to this beguiling flight of fancy. The precise cause of the ailment varies, of course. But the effect is tragic, and dramatically effective.
Gyllenhaal, who two years ago played the ne’er-do-well uncle of a plus-size teenager in Payne’s strenuously topical drama If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, brings a movie-star charisma to Roland while still making him a stooped-shouldered, hands-in-pockets regular guy. Wilson, a newly minted Golden Globe winner for the Showtime Drama The Affair, belies her character’s braininess with a more physically expressive volubility, the stuff of rom-com heroines everywhere. She’s an utterly magnetic charmer.
Director Michael Longhurst stages the action simply but evocatively, with the two performers circling a spare black platform, surrounded by giant balloons that change colors. (The set design is by Tom Scutt; the lighting by Lee Curran.) Those balloons prove to be anything but an accidental design element as one character complains about the “garish balloons” littering the hospital room of a dying woman with “God know how many tubes hanging out of her.” In Constellations, one of the most thought-provoking and stimulating new plays in recent memory, anything is possible but nothing is arbitrary. Grade: A