That’s amore in the mul­ti­verse

‘Con­stel­la­tions’ takes a quan­tum physics ap­proach to the many di­men­sions of love.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - CHARLES McNULTY THE­ATER CRITIC charles.mcnulty@ la­times.com

The open­ing scene of “Con­stel­la­tions,” the play by Bri­tish drama­tist Nick Payne that had a Broad­way pro­duc­tion in 2015 with Ruth Wil­son and Jake Gyl­len­haal, of­fers vari­a­tions of the meet­cute scene, in which fate brings to­gether a pair of un­sus­pect­ing lovers for top­sy­turvy ro­man­tic com­edy.

“Con­stel­la­tions,” how­ever, hardly qual­i­fies as a tra­di­tional rom-com. The dif­fer­ent ver­sions of this first en­counter be­tween Mar­i­anne (Gin­nifer Good­win), a Cambridge Univer­sity as­tro­physi­cist, and Roland (Allen Leech), a bee­keeper, re­flect the sci­en­tific aware­ness that the uni­verse is ac­tu­ally a mul­ti­verse and that time is a dodgier con­cept than most of us re­al­ize.

This two-ac­tor play, which opened Wednesday at the Gef­fen Play­house un­der the di­rec­tion of Gio­vanna Sardelli, has a method to its dra­matur­gi­cal mad­ness. Scenes are re­played in re­vised form to sug­gest a world that is in­fin­itely larger than our un­der­stand­ing.

As Mar­i­anne ex­plains early on to Roland, “In the quan­tum mul­ti­verse, ev­ery choice, ev­ery de­ci­sion you’ve ever and never made ex­ists in an unimag­in­ably vast en­sem­ble of par­al­lel uni­verses.”

This con­ver­sa­tion, which takes place in Mar­i­anne’s apart­ment af­ter a few drinks, marks the be­gin­ning of an in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship that will be chal­lenged first by mu­tual in­se­cu­rity, later by in­fi­delity and fi­nally by the prospect of mor­tal­ity, af­ter Mar­i­anne is di­ag­nosed with a brain tu­mor that im­pedes her abil­ity to or­der her thoughts in lan­guage.

Each piv­otal mo­ment in Mar­i­anne and Roland’s ro­man­tic his­tory is re­told in a “Rashomon”-style de­vised by a god with way too much free time. The spin­ning sets of pos­si­bil­i­ties ren­der the de­tails of what pre­cisely hap­pened more or less in­con­se­quen­tial. We don’t know, for in­stance, whether Mar­i­anne or Roland was the un­faith­ful party, only that the re­la­tion­ship was shaken and that their bond some­how sur­vived.

In a let­ter I came across in Carlo Rovelli’s book “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” Al­bert Ein­stein wrote to the fam­ily mem­ber of a de­ceased col­league: “Peo­ple like us, who be­lieve in physics, know that the dis­tinc­tion made be­tween past, present and fu­ture is noth­ing more than a per­sis­tent, stub­born il­lu­sion.” Payne’s drama doesn’t sim­ply con­vey this un­der­stand­ing via Mar­i­anne. The play’s atomic struc­ture is founded on such the­o­ret­i­cal in­sight.

The man­ner of sto­ry­telling will no doubt strike some as vex­ing. To the man com­pul­sively check­ing his watch next to me, time clearly wasn’t a fic­tion to be eas­ily dis­missed.

What sets the work apart is its emo­tional ac­ces­si­bil­ity. Ex­per­i­men­tal play­writ­ing can come across as dryly ab­stract, cater­ing to in­doc­tri­nated the­ater­go­ers who get their kicks from lan­guage games and puz­zling for­mal ex­er­cises.

“Con­stel­la­tions” is a small, un­ortho­dox play ze­ro­ing in on those main­stream emo­tions pro­voked by love and loss. In New York, the drama came to life largely through Wil­son’s sear­ing per­for­mance as Mar­i­anne, a char­ac­ter caught be­tween the ex­panse of her knowl­edge and the lim­its of her mor­tal life.

The ac­tors at the Gef­fen are more mun­dane in their char­ac­ter­i­za­tions than Wil­son and Gyl­len­haal, whose beard alone lent Roland a kind of celebrity at­trac­tion. Good­win plays up Mar­i­anne’s ro­man­tic skit­tish­ness. If her em­bar­rassed squeals and fre­quent Fbombs don’t sug­gest the stereo­type of the Cambridge sci­en­tist, they do hint at a young wo­man who spends more time an­a­lyz­ing data than so­cial­iz­ing with her peers.

Leech’s Roland, dressed in baggy khakis and a gray vest, is an or­di­nary bloke whose kind­ness leaves an ex­tra­or­di­nary im­pres­sion. He knows he’s not in Mar­i­anne’s in­tel­lec­tual league, but his un­com­mon sen­si­tiv­ity bridges the gap, mak­ing their story quite mov­ing at the end.

The pro­duc­tion, which looks like it had to make do with the most mea­ger of de­sign bud­gets, lacks visual magic. The stag­ing is sup­posed to be spare and sim­ple, but its fur­nish­ings and ef­fects seem to have been pur­chased at some thrifty party store.

Sardelli, who di­rected Ra­jiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj” at the Gef­fen and, more re­cently, Joseph’s “Arch­duke” at the Mark Ta­per Fo­rum, lu­cidly com­mu­ni­cates the play’s through line in her stag­ing. The tem­po­ral tran­si­tions, how­ever, could be more smoothly han­dled. To sig­nal that we are en­ter­ing the med­i­cal por­tion of the drama, Good­win makes a piti­ful ges­ture with her hand that has all the sub­tlety of a traf­fic light.

For­tu­nately, Good­win and Leech have a lively, rec­og­niz­able rap­port. We might not know ex­actly which ver­sion of events tran­spired in the col­lec­tive il­lu­sion we sci­en­tific ig­no­ra­muses call “re­al­ity,” but it is easy to be­lieve that in some in­signif­i­cant nook in the dwarf­ing mul­ti­verse Mar­i­anne and Roland’s love con­tin­ues to live on.

Chris Whi­taker

GIN­NIFER GOOD­WIN and Allen Leech have a lively, rec­og­niz­able rap­port as they star in “Con­stel­la­tions” at the Gef­fen Play­house.

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