The phrase “emotionally satisfying” is rarely seen alongside that of “experimental drama” — which makes Nick Payne’s arresting, intelligent new play “Constellations” all the more exciting. Michael Longhurst’s exacting direction elicits thrillingly precise performances from Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall in this quiet, two-actor relationship drama that shifts imperceptibly from cleverness into true profundity.
Playwrights attempting to address philosophical themes commonly create characters whose jobs supposedly shed light upon a play’s intellectual concerns. Explication of governing ideas is usually accomplished via lengthy explanatory discussions a la Tom Stoppard. What’s remarkable about “Constellations” is that Payne never stoops to that. Instead, he embodies his fascinating ideas in the play’s actual technique.
A rapid, sharp succession of diamond-bright opening exchanges on designer Tom Scutt’s neat, bare platform sets the prevailing tone. In a fast succession of repeated snapshots punctuated by snap lighting changes, Marianne (Hawkins) meets and flirts with Roland (Spall) at a party. The meeting is immediately re-played several times, each with a slightly different outcome: hopeless, helpless, amusing, embarrassing, arousing.
The conscious absurdity of contrasting repetitions creates a prevailing comic air — with the audiences ahead of the characters and yet surprised by the characters’ shifting responses to situations. And as their jousting leads audiences deeper into the casual, then serious, relationship, Payne holds firm to his structure of constantly re-angled fast-cut dialogue.
This initially feels like enjoyable but technical trickery. In fact it’s a perfectly dramatic illustration of the notion of different universes co-existing, a theory of quantum mechanics that is the area in which Marianne works. Although she fleetingly describes these ideas, it’s their embodiment in the way the audience directly experiences the play moment by moment that is so effective and ultimately so affecting.
Payne is far too compassionate a writer to be content with showing off a writerly idea. Instead, he pulls the rug out from the beneath the audience by mining deeper emotional territory.
His play presents life as a succession of tiny choices, but the mood shifts as Marianne is overtaken by an event in her life that it would be ruinous to give away. It does, however, demand that she make one very bold choice. This has seismic emotional repercussions for the characters, but also catapaults audiences into a complete understanding of the very nature of choice.
All of this is achieved with breathtaking lightness of touch. Payne’s approach is quirky enough to make Roland a beekeeper but his writing is not in the least whimsical. And everything is grounded by the meticulous work of the two actors.
Hawkins brings a remarkable emotional translucence to Marianne, a role that could easily boil over. But helmer Longhurst keeps her on a far more eloquent simmer, his tight control of the arc of individual scenes infinitely benefiting the play as a whole.
Marianne’s gradually darkening experience is both grounded and counterbalanced by Spall’s wonderfully calm Roland. As he showed in Payne’s award-winning debut “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” Spall has the rare gift of being able to express the clear intent of every beat of a script whether he’s underpinning or contradicting his dialogue.
A cloud-like collection of white balloons hangs over the in-the-round set. Together they conjure a sense of limitless possibility and childlike hope — both of which course through “Constellations.” At 65 minutes, it’s not an immediately obvious commercial possibility. But thanks in no small part to Longhurst’s beautiful production, future life undoubtedly beckons for this subtly powerful drama.