CONSTELLATIONS

jake-and-ruth-2

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.

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