Jake Gyllenhaal, who didn’t win a Golden Globe, and Ruth Wilson, who did, were at the Beverly Hilton the other night even though they’re making their Broadway debuts in Constellations. Mere mortals would chalk it up to the miracle of jet travel but not playwright Nick Payne. He might argue that the stars tumbled in via tesseract—remember A Wrinkle in Time?–allowing them to be in two places at once, even in two different moments at once, which apparently is what Constellations is all about.
On entering the intimate Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the former Biltmore that’s now the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway flagship, we see a stage filled with white orbs of various sizes and at varied heights. Once the 70-minute show gets underway, those globes will flash, crackle and pop as Roland (Gyllenhaal) and Marianne (Wilson) meet cute, over and over again, the repeated scenes separated by blinking, followed by brief blackouts.
Marianne’s opening line is: “Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows? They hold the secret to immortality, so if you lick them, there’s a chance you’d be able to live for ever.” That’s the very definition of meeting cute. Indeed, as Payne is British and this one-act two-hander comes via London’s Royal Court Theatre, I’m tempted to call it meeting cute to a twee, but I’ll resist.
The program tells us Constellations is set in “The Multiverse, in the Past, Present and Future.” And that the play takes its inspiration from an epigram in Scientific American magazine. Either of these would be enough to set off alarms in the mind of a playgoer; together, they summon the vaguely malevolent voice of Rod Serling: “Our senses tell us that time flows: namely—noo noo noo noo—that the past is fixed, the future undetermined and reality—noo noo noo noo—lives in the present. Yet various physical and philosophical arguments suggest—noo noo noo noo—otherwise. Time is an illusion—doodly-oodly-doo!”
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As I was saying, Roland and Marianne meet at a barbecue sometime in the past, present or future (this reminded me of a great Stephen Wright line: “I went to a restaurant that serves Breakfast Any Time, so I ordered French toast during the Renaissance”) and attempt to lick their elbows. This is repeated a few times and somehow introductions are made. Roland is an urban beekeeper. Marianne does something having to do with the Quantum Multiverse that involves typing data into a computer all day long, which Roland insists sounds glamorous. To no avail, however, as she has decided not to sleep with him, at least until they have repeated the scene a few more times, balloons winking and crackling along happily. Inevitably, there’s a Big Reveal in which Uncle Death enters the discussion. All the talk about time recedes as the play more or less stops in its tracks.
Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal proved himself an irresistible stage actor a few years ago in another Nick Payne play, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, playing the rude, crude but immensely sympathetic uncle of a fat girl with uncomprehending parents. Wilson won her Golden Globe for The Affair and she has an off-kilter comic sensibility that works beautifully with her grounded co-star. They have great chemistry and charm here, even when saying and doing preposterous things, frequently at the same time. I was rooting for them all the way.
Under Michael Longhurst’s timing-is-everything direction, they work very hard at this repeated-scene business, which can’t be easy. As an exercise in physical comedy, Constellations is a neat trick. But call it a trick or call it an exercise, it’s never much more than either, and a challenge to take seriously. A couple of times I found myself time-traveling to scenes from this theater’s past, hearing the cast of Hair singing “This Is The Dawning Of The Age Of Aquarius” and young marrieds Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley in Barefoot In The Park deciding to start over again. Sweet relief.
Here’s a suggestion: The season’s other fuzzy-thinking, short, star-driven play about lovers lost in time also comes from the Royal Court Theatre. Why not put The River, with Hugh Jackman, on a double bill with Constellations? Theatergoers could stuff all their head scratching wonderment into one evening and still be home before 10:30. p.m. Or a.m., yesterday, today or tomorrow, knows who?
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