Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe


Desert Rose Playhouse
Review by Rob Spiegel

Poster art courtesy of Desert Rose Playhouse
Science fiction has long played with the possibilities of quantum mechanics and the idea that we live in a multiverse rather than a universe. The concept suggests that our lives play out in infinite possibilities. In Constellations, British playwright Nick Payne takes this concept into a romantic narrative.

I've experienced an eerie intuitive sense of a multiverse twice in my life, and both times it involved death. When I was 20, my roommate died. At the time, I had this powerful feeling that he was still alive in some other universe. The idea haunts me to this day. Then, about five years ago, I went through a health crisis that landed me in a coma for three weeks. When I awoke, I had a powerful feeling that I had died in another universe. I had a complete sense of what my family and friends went through as a result of my death.

I've come out of those experiences with a keen sense that the concept of a multiverse has some practical credence. Consequently, I was perfectly happy with the idea of a story in which two characters play out multiple possibilities of their boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-gets-girl-back-again relationship.

In Payne's 2012 play, currently appearing at Desert Rose Playhouse, Roland (Christopher Chase) and Marianne (Karen Byers) meet at a barbecue. He's a beekeeper and she's a theoretical physicist. They play out a four- or five-minute meeting four or five times, each with different moods, interests, and emotions. In one instance, Roland is married. In another he has just come out of a serious relationship. From there, we watch as other scenes in their relationship play out in multiple forms. After a date, she asks him to leave. He's upset, or he's belligerent, or he's accepting. They move in, and someone cheats. He cheats, or she cheats—we see a number of permutations. Then we're on to a re-meet-up, a marriage, and illness.

Each stage of their relationship is played out in multiple ways, from complete disconnection and anger to love and compassion. In one instance, they are both deaf and have an argument in sign language. The concept lends itself to the possibility of true annoyance. Yet it's not annoying. The different permutations are not random; they arise from the well-articulated personality and character of both Roland and Marianne.

The saving grace of this play comes as Payne creates a form of progression in the interactions of this couple. Each scene opens with pronounced disconnection and missed cues. The attraction is apparent, but the characters are feeble in their ability to articulate their needs. Thus, they lash out or withdraw even as they're pulled together. After they've played out the scene a few times, gentleness and compassion begin to emerge. Confusion is replaced by acceptance. We begin to see the one thing that can break through and make sense of these random encounters: growth.

Chase and Byers deliver splendid performances through this difficult script. These two were last matched in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where they turned in terrific performances as George and Martha. Grueling as George and Martha may be, I would guess Roland and Marianne were more of a challenge. At least George and Martha remain steadfastly themselves through the story.

Roland and Marianne run through different versions of themselves—some petty and immature, some wise and caring. The task for the actors is to make sure Roland is always Roland-esque; likewise with Marianne. Chase and Byers have to find the core of their characters even as each character swirls through varied emotions, reacting in different ways to the same stimulus.

This must have been a difficult script for director Matthew Montroy, who also directed these two actors in Virginia Woolf. Montroy had the daunting task of creating different responses to the same dialog. In some scenes, the dialog is repeated word for word, yet the emotions change. The actors have to play the same scene with the same words in an entirely different manner—while still staying true to the essence of each character. Montroy and actors deliver well on this challenge.

My autistic daughter accompanied me to the play. At the conclusion, she said—loud enough for every audience member to hear—"I didn't understand that at all!" Her strict literal and linier perception couldn't make sense of watching these characters run through the same scenes over and over. She had trouble seeing the subtle emotional progression taking place. Albuquerque Journal reviewer Matthew Yde was sitting with us. He leaned over to my daughter and said, "Don't worry, your father will explain it to you."

The play is relatively easy to explain. We're all in Groundhog Day, struggling to get love right, learning desperately to quit lashing out in need, confusion and anger—struggling to turn attraction into understanding, acceptance, and tenderness. In a quantum multiverse, we get infinite tries at perfecting our ability to love and connect while remaining essentially ourselves.

This is an excellent production led by Montroy. The slides behind the actors by Shiela Freed and Elizabeth Goldfarb are well chosen, as are the odd selection of love songs put together by Montroy that play in the background. The choice of songs seems random, but maybe not. Huge kudos to Chase and Byers for taking us through this kaleidoscope of behaviors while revealing characters who are substantially themselves.

Constellations, at the Desert Rose Playhouse through December 17, 2017, 6921 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are $18 for general admission and $15 for students, seniors, and ATC members. For reservations, visit