“Constellations” is a kind of stage version of the film “Groundhog Day” except instead of Bill Murray endlessly repeating a single day, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson – both making their Broadway debuts — endlessly repeat a few moments throughout their relationship. The first moment is when Roland and Marianne meet for the first time and each tries to lick the tip of his or her own elbow. This, you see, is because, as Marianne points out, it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows – if you could do this, you would be immortal.
This is an intriguing idea, one of many in this play.
Actually, it isn’t.
This scene is played out several times in alternative versions. Marianne and Roland say slightly different things to one another, their back story differs slightly – sometimes they both know the host of the party where they are meeting; sometimes they don’t — although in each of these scenes, they still attempt to lick their elbows. It is kind of sexy when these fine performers and attractive human beings — Gyllenhaal, a movie star, and Wilson, the award-winning star of Showtime’s The Affair — work their tongues rapidly along their arms.
Over the 70 minutes of Nick Payne’s play, Marianne and Roland spin out what are apparently a few more key encounters, in their various alternative scenarios, quick scenes followed one upon another separated only by a brief blackout or a more subtle shift in lighting: Marianne and Roland get together; they don’t get together. They stay together; they don’t stay together. She’s dying; she isn’t dying. They meet years later in a ballroom. At one point their conversation is conducted entirely in sign language. At another moment they’re on the floor kissing. Most of the time they stand apart, as if on a stage reciting lines — which makes it all the more miraculous that these performers create two credible characters and some affecting interaction out of what in other hands might have been little more than an acting exercise.
What does it all mean? There are some clues. Marianne is a professor of physics at Cambridge University who studies “quantum cosmology” and “string theory.” She toys with the idea that several universes exist, and that in this “quantum multiverse….at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously.”
“This is genuinely turning me on you do realize that,” Roland interjects.
“….Every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes,” Marianne continues, ignoring his flirtation.
Roland is a beekeeper, and at one point, he recites a speech (repeating it several times) about the brief lives of bees, and the “clarity” of their purpose in living, depending on which of the three types of bees they are – the worker bee, all of whom are females, and they’re the ones we see pollinating the flowers, the Queen bee whose job it is to give birth to other bees, and the drones, whose purpose is to have sex with the Queen bee once and then die.
I didn’t know much about bees, and found this information fascinating.
Actually, just the first time.
There’s even a clue as to why the stage is full of balloons, although not why they change from white to purple, shimmer on occasion, and fall at a slow, steady rate to the stage floor. They make the set look initially like an exhibition at a planetarium, or maybe like a chic birthday party. At one point, Marianne says she hates it when sick people are surrounded by those garish “Get Well” balloons.
“Some people like to give people balloons,” Roland observes helpfully.
The British playwright Nick Payne is also the author of “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” another export from Britain, which marked Gyllenhaal’s American stage debut a few years ago, and which had him speaking in a different British accent than the one he affects for Constellations. That first Payne play was about a family falling apart at the same time that the earth’s suffering as a result of climate change, and is most memorable for flooding the stage with water. On the basis of these two plays, one can conclude that Payne is interested in comparing and contrasting an individual’s emotional life with the larger concerns of the universe. You can understand why some critics on both sides of the Atlantic have been dazzled by this play, and how some theatergoers have said they leave the theater thinking about the choices they have made at key points in their own lives.
Actually, I can’t.
At the Samuel J. Friedman Theater
By Nick Payne; directed by Michael Longhurst; sets and costumes by Tom Scutt; lighting by Lee Curran; sound by David McSeveney; music by Simon Slater; movement director, Lucy Cullingford; fight director, Thomas Schall
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Roland) and Ruth Wilson (Marianne).
Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $115.00 – $155.00
Constellations is scheduled to run through March 15