Old movie buffs still sniffle, remembering the final moments of Now Voyager, when Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) gazes adoringly at Jerry Durrance (Paul Henried) and says, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Charlotte’s cosmology is iffy, but for romance this moment lingers 75 years later.
Marianne, the female half of Nick Payne’s lovely two-character play, Constellations, would no doubt correct Charlotte on her bad science. A Cambridge-educated theoretical physicist, and an expert on the universe and its timeline, Marianne knows that life is a kind of theme and variations—its potential detours and consequences are uncountable.
It is Marianne who steers the narrative of Constellations, both in the sense that she is the more confident, assertive one in her relationship with Roland, a beekeeper—and because their story takes its form from Marianne’s understanding of time and life as a stream of potential “what if?” scenarios. The 70-minute play is a series of scenes—really, more snapshots or fragments—of bits and pieces in Marianne and Roland’s relationship, as it might have gone in life-changingly different directions.
In lesser hand than Payne’s, the structure could be a gimmick, the set-up for a romantic comedy. (I can hear Scott Rudin pitching it now, maybe to Alicia Vikander and Benedict Cumberbatch). But this is a genuinely fine play, full of thoughtful details, that will appeal equally to scientists and poets (and everybody in between on the continuum).
Payne gets so many things right here. The variations are realistic enough that we, the audience, believe any of them could happen. (We also must be on our toes—part of the enjoyment is in parsing the tiny details that separate one from another.) We also have the power to connect and choose in our minds the narrative sequence we want. (Some are happier than others.) In keeping the play short and the action constantly moving, we leave Constellations wishing there were more. (How often does that happen in the theater?)
It’s also a challenge for actors, who need to inflect each scenelet with a wide range of moods and colors—often it’s the subtext rather than the language that is different. Sarah Gliko and Jered McLenigan and simply terrific here. Both master the idiom (English accents and all), and clearly etch their character arcs. Gliko and McLenigan are real-life wife and husband—that doesn’t always mean on-stage chemistry, but it certainly does here. They’re equally charismatic individually and together.
And what a gorgeous production! Director Tea Alagić nails the twists-and-turns with pinpoint precision, and the beautiful design work—sound by Elizabeth Atkinson, lighting by Masha Tsimring, projections and scenery by Matt Saunders—plays a major role. It’s all the more impressive and elegant for its simplicity. Some audience members may look at the stage initially and see it as virtually empty.
But soon, we know—as surely as Marianne does—that what seems like a blank slate is, in reality, infinite possibility.
Constellations plays through February 5. For more information, visit the Wilma Theater website.