Not thrilled with the way last night’s love connection played out? Would-be seducers can now take heart. Yesterday’s romantic disaster may be just one of the infinite variations on the events that are occurring in parallel universes, with potentially better results happening elsewhere. So you may have solidly struck out on this plane, but on another, you managed to score and are now happily, sheepishly strolling a walk of shame.
Quantum theory collides with the highs and lows of romance in Nick Payne’s transfixing Constellations, the much-lauded work that now receives an absorbing regional premiere at PURE Theatre. Directed by Sharon Graci and boasting a new original score by musician Bill Carson, it should be on the short list for anyone who prefers their love stories relayed with equal parts scientific rigor and emotional weight.
Constellations starts out quite jovially, as boy meets girl at a barbecue somewhere around London. Marianne (Camille Loman) attempts to engage Roland (Paul Rolfes) with some off-kilter banter, to a disappointing end. Then, in quick succession, the scene plays again and again, in different universes, with some of the conversation remaining verbatim and other parts radically changing, like an experiment forever switching up its variables. In some iterations, Marianne’s overtures are dead on arrival; in others, the first sparks of connection ignite.
And so it goes through the trajectory of Roland and Marianne’s first date, deepening affection, chilly rifts, stark betrayal, hard-won reconciliation, and tragedy. The notion that the playwright furthers — that concurrent, countless alternate paths are forever spinning out — carries with it the existential fallout from such a refutation of free will. If our decisions and revisions are neither definitive nor self-determined, does anything we do even matter?
PURE has designed Constellations in the round, with most of the action happening on a central, undulating circular platform, around which the audience is seated. This production choice typically gives me pause (having viewed one or two tortured Broadway attempts undone by the same format). Here, however, the staging succeeds on many counts. First, it offers the entire house an intimacy befitting material that revolves around the nuance of romantic entanglements. And, given the play’s pursuit of the nonlinear, it presents opportunities for the actors to come at their multiple versions of events from new and random angles, like particles ricocheting through space.
Both actors explore these unending angles relentlessly, convincingly and altogether movingly. With each step along their veined pathways of courtship, they pivot from tender to terse, from cold to coy, from unfazed to grief-ridden. As Roland, Rolfes’ performance is subtle and fine. A gentle giant, Roland’s man-sized vulnerability comes across as both cringe-worthy and captivating. Loman’s Marianne is a straight shooter who seamlessly shifts from endearing, offbeat candor to blunt disdain. In doing so, she reveals how our actions inform character and vice versa, how the same flirty party guest could later that night be either beguiling or off-putting.
On the night I saw the show, guitarist Bill Carson, who performs live, was introduced beforehand as a third member of the cast in PURE’s production. Throughout the performance, his soulful strains accentuate the stage drama, plaintively, gorgeously underscoring the ineffable aspect of love that lives outside scientific theory and philosophical discourse.
These three players come together to mine meaning where science endeavors to undermine it. Whatever quantum mechanics may suggest about this futile jaunt called life, there’s still this: the aching devotion between two people that palpably, poignantly remains, even as science and the physical world conspire to betray us.
Yes, Constellations goes that deep. However, it’s also inflected with a quick and quirky humor that keeps it ticking along. That is, until the mirth eventually idles and is replaced by the persistence of illness and its suggestion of finality. I do wonder if there may be more levity to coax from the first scenes that could round out the weighty end of narrative arc. Perhaps the uptick would further propel the story from the blithely low stakes of barbecue chitchat to the grim conditions of the play’s culmination.
It’s vast territory to cover in 90 minutes, but like stumbling into a black hole, Constellations compresses a great deal of intellectual and emotional matter, and does so in an incongruent span of time. I’m pleased to report that it did so without making my brain ache in the least, for which I bestow much admiration and appreciation.
PURE not only shares this worthwhile work with thought, grace, and heart, but also provides the requisite clarity to demystify science for an astrophysics bonehead like myself. It’s good meaty theater, the kind that your mind will likely revisit for days to come, on your morning commute or in the line at Starbucks. Or perhaps it will pop into your head at the next barbecue, if only to cheer you up after that idiotic pickup line you just lobbed goes over like a lead balloon.