Stories that unfold in multiple universes have undeniable appeal. Who wouldn’t want to think that just because things aren’t so swell here, they’re not better -- or at least different -- on some parallel plane? Cases in point: Broadway’s “If/Then,” David Ives’ comic “Sure Thing,” the films “Sliding Doors” and “Groundhog Day,” and so on.
The “multiverse play” gets an appealing entry with “Constellations,” a two-character drama by young British playwright Nick Payne now having its American premiere, with Jake Gyllenhaal and newly minted Golden Globe winner Ruth Wilson (Showtime’s “The Affair”) making their Broadway debuts. “Constellations” has just opened at the MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Amid examples of the genre, “Constellations” raises the stakes by introducing a female lead with an academic background in nothing less than quantum mechanics. Wilson’s Marianne studies “theoretical early universe cosmology” at Cambridge University, and believes that at any given moment, several outcomes of any event can co-exist simultaneously.
“In the Quantum Multiverse,” she explains to Gyllenhaal’s wholly rapt Roland, a charming beekeeper, “every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” (With kudos to the playwright, there’s not a suggestion of classism apparent between the two.)
Payne eases into the material gently: Marianne and Roland meet at a barbecue, where her flirty opening gambit is: “Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tip of your elbows? They hold the secret to immortality.” Roland, sensing the come-on, shuts her right down: “I’m in a relationship.”
There’s a flash, and then the scene repeats, with Marianne making further inroads. The narrative repeats yet once more, and Roland gradually moves from a position of evasiveness to willingness. Spoiler alert! You will get to see Gyllenhaal and Wilson attempting to lick their elbows…
“Constellations” takes a little more work to follow than, say, “If/Then.” When I first saw the cascade of balloons suspended over the heads of its appealing stars, I’ll admit to a fleeting hope that they would change colors as a visual cue, letting us know when we were in a certain storyline. (In his script, Payne alternates between regular type, bold and italics to make the distinction; theatergoers have no such crutch).
As it turns out, cues aren’t so necessary. That’s partly because “Constellations” forsakes any linear quality for sheer chaos—some dialogue is repeated once or twice; elsewhere, we see variations on an exchange four or five times. It’s also because the actors are so confident and well-paced (and clearly having fun) that you never doubt how they’re playing any moment.
This isn’t Gyllenhaal’s first time at the rodeo with the playwright’s complex dialogue. He made his New York stage debut 2 years ago in Payne’s “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” produced by Roundabout. Like “Constellations,” that production was helmed by Michael Longhurst.
The actors give true tour-de-force performances, notably when Roland reaches a moment where he may propose to Marianne. Gyllenhaal, reading from a script Roland has prepared, makes his overture with confidence one time; he does it again in a state of sheer terror, his hands trembling along with the paper on which he has scripted his big speech.
Wilson, a two-time Olivier Award-winner honored on Sunday as best actress in a TV series, duels and parries with her partner to memorable effect, whether she’s a sloppily emotional figure out on a first date, or an academic methodically enchanted by the mysteries of the universe. That’s a tightrope to walk.
Both really have to know this script like a comfortable old sweatshirt, they’re wiggling around in it so much.
The arc of Payne’s story—there are nearly 60 scenes, within 6 or 7 particular “moments” of their relationship—traces the couple’s introduction, that first date, an illness, a surprise reunion at a ballroom dancing class and a fateful decision Marianne must make on her own.
The only real drawback to this kind of story-telling is that it’s something of an effort to ever really attach to Marianne or Roland because, by design, they have so many darn personalities. Payne keeps the conceit to 70 minutes, after which it might have become laborious; as it is, the outcome is pretty muddled, leaving us to wonder if there was a particular social statement the writer was grasping for, but opted at the last moment to back away from.
Not to matter, though. Gyllenhaal and Wilson, with all of their many sides, are a dynamic pairing no matter which direction they're coming at us from.
“Constellations,” through March 15 at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Tickets: $67-$145. Call 212-239-6200.