Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 13, 2015
Constellations by Nick Payne. Directed by Michael Longhurst. Scenic & costume design by Tom Scutt. Lighting design by Lee Curran. Sound design by David McSeveney. Original music by Simon Slater. Movement Director Lucy Cullingford. Fight Director Thomas Schall. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ruth Wilson.
But fewin recent memory, anywayhave packed the breath-robbing wallop of Constellations, the stunningly powerful play by Nick Payne that just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman. Like all the very best works of theatre, it fuses the eternal and the intimate, addressing questions of enormous significance while not letting you lose sight of the deeply human tale at its center. In Michael Longhurst's razor-sharp production (which premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre three years ago, and subsequently moved to the West End), and with two incredible performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, it epitomizes not just what contemporary theatre can and should be, but also stands as a riveting reminder of just how we should live: as though every moment is the only one.
This may sound straightforward, even cliché, and in many ways perhaps it is, but under Payne's guidance it's wholly fresh and unpredictable. In the realm of his creation (referred to in the Playbill as "The Multiverse"), each of those "only" moments is an isolated link in a chain that defines us in ways that transcend our limited perceptions of reality. Quantum cosmologist Marianne (Wilson) describes this cosmic view to Roland (Gyllenhaal) when they're both a little tipsy on one of their earliest dates together.
"In the Quantum Multiverse, every choice, every decision you've ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes," she tells Roland. "Let's say that ours really is the only universe that exists. There's only one unique me and one unique you. If that were true, then there could only ever really be one choice. But if every possible future exists, then the decisions we do and don't make will determine which of these futures we actually end up experiencing."
Payne spends an enthralling 70 minutes exploring this hypothesis. (And, rest assured, that's as dense and science-y as Constellations gets.) From their first meeting at a soggy barbeque through their quarrels, break-ups, get-back-togethers, and beyond, we see myriad possibilities for each decision before them, and then view the futures those decisions create (or risk creating) in the short and long term. Time rewinds, fast-forwards, and resets itself, suggesting both that we may in fact be able to love someone else forever and that there's less of a distinction between what we've already done and what we have yet to experience than most of us choose to believe.
The resulting atmosphere is one in which you form an immense bond with both of these people, because you witness not just who they are but who they could be, and why. One phrase, spoken one way and then repeated a few seconds later with a tiny modulation of voice, can mean something radically different both times. Their switching words across repetitions of an otherwise simple exchange can either throw their relationship into flux, or cast in a much more forgiving and understanding light. And observing how little (or much) the biggest moments of their lives differ from the smallest, and how it can frequently be difficult to tell the two apart, becomes an all-encompassing joy of seeing them talk, fight, and grow together.
Although there is something of a plot to the evening (and one that I won't spoil), its specifics become so entwined in its presentation that the destination soon begins mattering far less than the journey. (Considering the play's view of the malleability of time, that's probably a good thing.) But you're never short-changed because of how intricately Payne examines both Marianne and Roland; these are as vivid people as have appeared in a new Broadway play in years. And even if every eventuality doesn't actually "happen," there are more than enough to fuel several additional plays' worth of questions all on their own ("Wait, why did he read the paper about hot subdwarf stars this time instead of the one about the XMM Cluster Survey?"), and dissecting those, in the moment and in the minutes, hours, and even days after you leave the theater is where much of the most exciting expanse of Constellations is found.
Even so, what's onstage is a wonder. Longhurst's direction is lightning-paced, no-nonsense, and flab-free, traversing dozens of realities with pinpoint precision. Tom Scutt's jet-black set consists of little more than a shimmering platform on which the actors stand and a collection of floating white spheres that are lighted (by Lee Curran) not just to resemble stars, balloons, streetlamps, hospital illumination, and so on, but also to telegraph each change to a new reality.
Not that either Gyllenhaal or Wilson needs it. Each creates such a dynamic, perfectly of-the-moment person that even the smallest adjustment to attitude, posture, or vocal inflection can instantly transport you to a different place, time, or state of being. Gyllenhaal may be best known for his blockbuster Hollywood films, but, as he also demonstrated in his New York stage debut in Payne's If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet in 2012, he's also a spectacular stage actor. The actor's magnetic charm and firm, supple voice give Roland an unquestionable masculinity, but he plays wounded just as well, and his skin and manner soften gradually as his resolve comes closer and closer to cracking as events start to, shall we say, not go Roland's way.
Wilson, an English actress who won a Golden Globe earlier this week for her work in the TV series The Affair and is also acclaimed for her work onstage (A Streetcar Named Desire, Anna Christie) and screen (Saving Mr. Banks, The Lone Ranger), is just as good as Marianne. She gives her a fervent intellectualism tempered by a young woman's romantic flightiness, showing how she recognizes in exactly the existence she's locked. But the passionate side is there, too, and her battle against her more "reasonable" nature, as she slowly gives in to Roland's affections and discovers what the price for that must eventually be, is by turns inspiring and deflating.
The same is true of the play as a whole, whichagainst the oddstells a single, complete story of devotion that no god, no fate, and no shifting dimensions can interrupt. Love is like that; so is life, for that matter. And dwelling on the variations you can't experience is to lose sight of the glorious existence you're capable of creating. Constellations may not be the permanent cure for the regret that can burden our lives, but it's serenely beautiful as it proves the restorative, even exalting, necessary of valuing each and every one of the decisions we make along the way.