Tedious brief scenes: A dissenting view of Constellations

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Constellations

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of Constellations

Herewith a few thoughts, not intended as a full-fledged review, on a play that I saw during the recent holiday season but for which I took no notes.

In Constellations, a two-character drama now running in a Manhattan Theatre Club production, dramatist Nick Payne took pains to work an explanation for what we’re seeing into the text, and every review I’ve seen so far has quoted it, but the play is quite clear without it. The friend with whom I saw Constellations, who knew nothing about it except that it features Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, grasped the idea right off. Only a few minutes in, after we saw three versions of a very brief opening scene—and before that explanatory remark arrived—he leaned over and said, “Parallel universes.”

Here’s how Payne’s version of “boy meets girl” goes. At a party, a boy named Roland meets a girl named Marianne, in three slightly different ways; boy gets girl, or does not; boy loses girl, or does not; boy who had lost girl meets her again by chance later, but this does not go well, or it does; boy proposes marriage to girl, in three almost identical ways; etc. For a while, the science-fiction TV series Fringe used the phrase “endless impossibilities” as part of its tagline. Remove the im- prefix and you’ve got it: Payne, a little more rigorous in his adherence to reality, is dramatizing the idea that, in any given situation, the possibilities are endless.

There’s a quirk in the structure I couldn’t help noticing. We seem always to see exactly three variations on any given scene, though there may be exceptions that I’ve forgotten. Nonetheless, I’m convinced, in part because of Marianne’s explanatory remarks, that Payne doesn’t want us to look at any of these moments in terms of a binary possibility—for instance, either Roland spends the night with Marianne or he doesn’t—or for that matter in terms of three outcomes. He wants us instead to recognize a multitude of ways for an encounter to play out. Why doesn’t he mix it up a little, give us four versions of one scene, two of another, five of a third? Despite his otherwise unorthodox presentation of multiple fragments of multiple stories, Payne’s persistent reliance on sets of three marks him as a traditionalist in one sense: rhetoric tells us that a series of three possesses roundedness and completeness, whereas two sounds dogmatic and terse, and four evokes a sense of exhaustive thoroughness. But rhetoric also values variety. Three times round for every scene makes the play seem a little too patterned and schematic.

Constellations has bigger problems, though. It’s both thin—possibly the most evanescent play I’ve ever seen—and improbable. Because everything is sketched briefly, little is developed about the characters and their situations. Thus it remains hard to believe that a physicist who works at Cambridge (Marianne) would find any basis for a relationship with a beekeeper (Roland). The physicist and the beekeeper—it sounds like a quaint music-hall concoction. Sure, it’s possible for two such people to get together. It’s also possible that I live in a universe in which I’ll get to know physicist Lisa Randall, whom I admire immensely. But I’m not betting on it.

Not only do you wonder how this unlikely affair could be sustained; you barely even see that it’s sustained. To be precise, in many of the outcomes it isn’t, but in what we’re shown the affair does go forward. In effect, we witness a relationship in outline form, consisting of a handful of crucial points where things can go in different directions. And despite being exceedingly short—only 70 minutes, performed without intermission—Constellations still feels too long for what it accomplishes.

Despite its overall thinness, the play is at least conceptually fascinating. And, for what it’s worth, I imagine the material is a feast for the actors. Among the things that baffle me about other reviews is that some critics seem to think this kind of scene work would be difficult. (Even Jesse Green, whose review I otherwise endorse wholeheartedly, said as much.) Do they imagine that a pianist is seriously challenged by any kind of moment-to-moment shift, whether large or small, in phrasing, tempo, volume, and the like? It’s of the essence of performing that one is capable of such things.

The production design is tantalizing. The two performers are immensely appealing. And the show worked well for most of the American critics (reviews in England, where the play originated, were more mixed), as it did for my friend. His take on it went something like this: among all the possible outcomes of a chance encounter between a man and a woman, there’s one really good course, a near perfect romance, and it’s kind of a miracle because it can so easily go awry at a thousand turns along the way. But for me, one of Michael Billington’s two alternative responses, in his Guardian review of the play’s Royal Court staging, is more apropos: it’s like Love Story with a dash of physics.

Further reading

Anyone longing to know more about multiverse theories might wish to consult the following. Thanks to Lee Billings for recommending these particular sources.

  • An article by Max Tegmark, from the May 2003 Scientific American, surveying four forms of multiverse theory
  • A Q&A with Paul Steinhardt, from a 12/01/14 blog post by John Horgan, critiquing multiverse theories along with the related idea of cosmic inflation
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