She’s a quantum physicist, he’s a beekeeper. They meet at a barbecue. It’s a tale as old as time…but, what exactly is the meaning of time? Constellations, a play by Nick Payne currently in its Los Angeles premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, is an ambitious look at the infinite paths every relationship can take. Told in a non-linear fashion, it is a a thought-provoking examination of the theory of multiple universes and the many ways life can unfold, both as a result of choices and as a result of circumstances beyond anyone’s control.
Constellations premiered in London in 2012 prior to a successful Broadway run in 2015. A two-hander, the Los Angeles production stars Ginnifer Goodwin (Once Upon a Time, Big Love) and Allen Leech (Downton Abbey) as Marianne and Roland, two intelligent, quirky adults living in England. The play begins quite simply—the two have an adorably awkward meet cute at a mutual friend’s barbecue, and it seems fairly clear where things will go from here. Except, as it turns out, they can go many ways. We see several iterations of their initial meeting in quick succession, with the shift between timelines indicated only by a color change in Lap Chi Chu’s dazzling lighting. The differences between each version of the scene vary—in some, Roland is already married, in some, he has a girlfriend, in some he is single. Marianne flirts with him with varying degrees of aggression, although certain groan-inducing anecdotes and awkward missteps remain the same across every outcome, a nice and believable touch. From there, we see the two of them share important moments over the course of what seems to be several years, with each occurrence reexamined multiple times. The moments themselves are for the most part chronological with a few exceptions, and result in fates ranging from exhilarating to devastating.
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, this is obviously a very ambitious narrative structure, which makes it crucial that the story being told is so universal, simple, and human. While it is a bit intimidating to see the words theoretical physics thrown around in the description of a play, exactly the right amount of science is used to make the story’s intentions clear without ever feeling cumbersome or confusing. Marianne describes the basics of the theory of the multiverse to Roland on one of their early dates, which perfectly clarifies any doubts the viewer may have about what has been happening, and then science is scarcely mentioned until the final, extremely powerful scene. As for Roland’s occupation as a beekeeper, it has no bearing on the plot whatsoever, but is certainly memorable and the source of a few funny lines.
Personally, I am riveted by any exploration of themes such as these in media. The concept of parallel universes spawned by every decision we make is fascinating, and experimenting with time can be very fruitful creatively—there’s a reason so many TV shows and movies play with multiple timelines nowadays. It is extremely difficult to communicate onstage, however, and ultimately, despite very good intentions, Constellations does not quite get there. The musical If/Then, which unfolds in two possible timelines as the result of a choice the main character makes in the opening number, approached the structure and staging of this concept totally differently and also didn’t completely work, but it did have the slight advantage of choosing to play with only two branches. Constellations is exploring infinite outcomes, which at times feels almost haphazard. Initially, I wondered if the lighting was color-coded to multiple continuous narratives, but that is not the case, and the scenes seen here are better equated to scattered dots across a map of the multiverse. The action also became slightly too repetitive—some scenes are played out as many as four or five times with only small changes, and extended bits of dialogue are identical and played as such. Dragging on is not the problem with a concise running time of only 80 minutes, but more variety might have not only broken up periods of monotony but also contributed to the ultimate point the show is trying to make. I am not sure what the answer is to successfully communicating multiple timelines onstage without any confusion or frustration, but I do hope playwrights will continue attempting to figure it out.
Despite the components of the narrative structure that do not quite succeed, there is far more to love here than to question, notably the stellar performances of Goodwin and Leech. Material like this requires a great deal of precision and finesse, and even when the story becomes deeply emotional, they never miss a beat. They are so distinct in their portrayals that despite next to no exposition, you get a very clear sense of who Marianne and Roland are, and this remains consistent no matter what choice they make or which circumstance is thrust upon them.
There is no real conclusion to be drawn from Constellations, nor some heavy-handed philosophical point it is trying to make. There are certainly inferences that can be drawn about the play’s stance on free will versus fate—notably, most of the branches on Marianne and Roland’s path lead to the same basic end result, although there are a couple outliers that lead to a seemingly less probable but equally plausible conclusion. Constellations is truly just a lovely and innovative exploration of possibilities and love that is ultimately very moving and thought-provoking. Kudos to the Geffen Playhouse, as this is their second production in a row that has really stuck with me after leaving the theater.
Constellations runs at the Geffen Playhouse through July 16th. The running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Tickets start at $43 and can be purchased here.