Short and sweet and strangely haunting. That’s the quick take on “Constellations,” a romantic two-hander starring dreamy Jake Gyllenhaal and the radiant British thesp Ruth Wilson (fresh off her Golden Globes win for Showtime’s “The Affair”) as a young couple who break through the boundaries of the time/space continuum to explore the infinite possibilities of their love. Although barely an hour long, this baby bombshell by hot Brit scribe Nick Payne (a play that originated at the Royal Court and went on to the West End) overflows with emotional highs and lows.
Who hasn’t wondered about the roads not taken and where they might have led us? Who hasn’t mourned the adventures we never had, the soulmates we never met, the happiness we never knew because we never dared to take that detour off the beaten track?
The poet Robert Frost said it in a single memorable line: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood / And sorry I could not travel both.” Gwyneth Paltrow had the rare opportunity to live two simultaneous (and equally dull) lives in the 1998 movie “Sliding Doors.” In its own clumsy way, the musical “If/Then” plays on the same theme by manipulating the chance decisions that allow a woman, played by Idina Menzel, to pursue two alternate lives
“Constellations” accomplishes the same metaphysical feat with far more grace and intelligence by sending destined lovers Roland (Gyllenhaal) and Marianne (Wilson) spinning through space, altering their relationship at every turn through the individual choices they make. There’s some cosmological science behind the premise of co-existing universes, but nothing you need master to enjoy the show.
On human terms, the infinite possibilities of unlimited choice present themselves in the amusing opening scene, which has Roland, an earthbound beekeeper, and Marianne, a flighty quantum physicist, meeting cute at a barbecue. But before this affair can get off the ground, the scribe re-runs the same scene to show us all the variables involved in any start-up relationship. In one version, Roland is already in a serious relationship. In another version, Marianne is in recovery from a bad relationship of her own. In other variations, Roland is married. Or Marianne is.
Each time the scene backs up for a replay, Roland and Marianne are actually transported to an alternate universe and given another chance. Under Michael Longhurst’s silken direction, these hops through space are accomplished without elaborate set changes – just a photographic flash (the work of designer Lee Curran) to light up a stage that set designer Tom Scutt has hung with masses of silver balloons (and balloon-like lights) suggesting individual planets suspended in an endless universe.
That’s all it takes for drama — that, and some killer acting.
It’s inevitable that regional theaters will pounce on this low-maintenance, audience-pleasing show. Single set, two characters, no scenery to speak of — the economics of it are positively irresistible. But anything less than killer acting would be lethal for any future productions, and exactly how many Jake Gyllenhaals and Ruth Wilsons are out there, anyway?
Gyllenhaal has the charm and good looks of a leading man, but he’s also got the acting chops of a chameleon character actor, equally believable as a driven investigative reporter (“Zodiac”), a sensitive cowboy (“Brokeback Mountain”) or an obsessive gutter-press photographer (“Nightcrawler”). Here he gets to play someone whose character changes from minute to minute, and he’s pretty amazing. So is Wilson, now best known through “The Affair” but carrying heavy theater credentials including an Olivier award for “Anna Christie” and one for “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Her style as the brilliant, desperately needy Marianne is mercurial — and enchanting.
With this oddball show safe in the hands of these thesps, Roland and Marianne eventually connect and their affair finally gets off the ground — sort of. Marianne invites Roland to her place after their first date. And then she doesn’t. Roland behaves like a jerk in one scenario and she throws him out, but he’s a sweetheart in another variation on the same scene, which draws them into a more intimate relationship.
And so it goes throughout the play, as they explore one or another of their infinite universes. Marianne cheats on Roland in one universe, and he cheats on her in another. He proposes and she accepts. He proposes and she turns him down. They break up and he marries someone else. They break up and she gets engaged. They break up and get back together.
The important point here is that the devilishly clever scribe is not playing games with either his characters or his audience, because with each iteration Roland and Marianne grow closer to one another — and become more important to us. And by the end of the play (has it really been only an hour?), we’re fully invested in their lives. All of them.