CONSTELLATIONS

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Written by Nick Payne

Directed by Michael Longhurst

Reminiscent of other recent British dramas  (Phillip Ridley’s TENDER NAPALM for one), Manhattan Theater Club’s latest import is lean, low tech, high concept and actor driven. Though it gives its two superb players plenty to work with, the script doesn’t quite provide the emotional journey one might expect of a Broadway show.

Marianne (Ruth Wilson), is an astrophysicist who works at Cambridge University. In a chance encounter, she meets a charming apiculturist named Roland (Jake Gyllenhaal). After some awkward small talk, the two begin dating. During one of their early conversations, Marianne introduces Roland to the Many-Worlds Interpretation: a mathematical theory in which a situation could have infinite possible outcomes. Fear not, you don’t need a science background to understand CONSTELLATIONS. The point of the conceit is that there is a what-if-ness that haunts Roland and Marianne as their relationship deepens. Supposing the stars had aligned differently. They might never have met, never been torn asunder by infidelity, never reconciled and renewed their commitment— only to confront an illness that threatens to destroy Marianne’s extraordinary mind and, eventually, her life.

The premise is provocative, but its potential is only partially explored. Playwright Nick Payne doesn’t really show us many worlds, but rather a series of mostly minor variations of the same narrative. There are occasional glimpses of the roads not taken, but none receives much development. In one version of a domestic squabble, for example, Roland loses his temper and strikes Marianne. The gentle beekeeper clearly harbors a violent side. Yet we never see what his life – or Marianne’s -might have been like if he’d gone down a darker path. Even the more commonplace midlife what-might-have-beens, like  having children or switching careers, go largely uninvestigated.  Instead, much of the play consists of repeated scenes in which the dialogue changes only subtly, if at all. It’s the actors who alter the meaning by playing it in different tones and tempos. The brevity of the scenes and the wit and likeability of the characters keep the intermissionless show moving briskly enough. But over the course of the evening, the play begins to feel more like a master class in acting than a fully realized drama.

Despite these limitations, there are some delightful moments in the exchanges between the two performers. Director Michael Longhurst clearly understands what makes actors tick, and has given his cast the safety and freedom to experiment. Gyllenhaal and Wilson show a remarkable array of psychological colors and a protean ability to rapidly shift emotional gears  without losing authenticity.  It is their frankness  and spontaneity, unencumbered by complex props and set pieces, that give the play what energy it has. For students of the theater, CONSTELLATIONS is recommended as a textbook illustration of the many worlds that can be wrung from a single line of text simply by changing its interpretation. General audiences, however, are likely to find the production a little light for the ticket price.

CONSTELLATIONS continues in an open run at the  Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: Telecharge.com.

LIMITED EXPERIENCE Written and performed by His Majesty The Baby

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After the success of WE’RE VERY PROUD AND WE LOVE YOU SO MUCH at this summer’s New York Fringe Festival, His Majesty The Baby is bringing its ever-mutating brand of comedy to various venues in New York and elsewhere. Last week they hit the cozy back room of Chelsea’s People’s Improv Theater with the (nominally) holiday-themed LIMITED EXPERIENCE. The team (Shon Arieh-Lerer, Nathan Campbell, John Griswold, Andrew Kahn and Max Ritvo) continued its exploration of the spectator-performer relationship with a brief but substantial taster-plate of innovative sketches, projections, songs and soliloquies.

The theme of the evening was introduced with a rousing sing-along number which lauded the virtues of the theatrical fourth wall and assured us that “the audience can never take the stage”.  Naturally, a rule like that is made to be transgressed, and comic tension simmered as boundaries began to unravel. Satire itself became the object of some of the lampoons: A tutorial on the art of parody morphed into a Dadaist exercise in elevated nonsense. A naturalistic glimpse of the challenges of intimacy turned into metatheater as audience members became pawns in a domestic conflict. The message, of course, is that conventions – even conventional attacks on convention-  make us mentally lazy. Truth is by nature transient and requires vigilance, a continual self-examination and dismantling of convenient constructs.

If all this sounds a bit like a Gurdjieff discussion group in sketch-comedy clothing, fear not. HMTB manages to be cerebral in a goofily humble fashion. The material is thought-provoking, but never opaque or smugly intellectual and the performers are charismatic and fun to watch as they surrender themselves to the uncertainty of chance. Eschewing the conventional imperative to deliver zingers at regular intervals, the lads are willing to sacrifice the immediate laugh response for the sake of a larger payoff. Their trust in the audience is reciprocated. Even when we wonder where a scene is going, we’re willing to follow them. Where it all ends up may be entirely different from one night to the next. But that, like the controlled accidents of a Pollock canvas, is the beauty of it.

His Majesty The Baby will be back at the P.I.T Theater on January 27. 123 East 24th Street, New York, New York. (212) 563-7488.  HMTB website: http://hismajestythebaby.com