Neurotics pore over events large and small, considering every way that things could have gone differently, and how things might happen in the future.
So in a way, Nick Payne’s two-hander play “Constellations,” now playing at Theatre Nova, felt like familiar territory to me. (Ahem.)
But instead of neurosis, the basis for exploring two romantically linked characters’ possible choices, actions, and responses in a handful of situations is theoretical physics – specifically, the notion of multiverses, where “every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” So although we only see about a half dozen interactions play out between two people, over the course of seventy minutes, we see different versions of each one – including one performed entirely in sign language – and no particular take is more “accurate” nor more “real” than any other.
Marianne (Meghan VanArsdalen) is a spunky astrophysicist who works at Cambridge when she meets a sweet, married (except when he’s not) beekeeper named Roland (Forrest Hejkal) at a barbecue – where it’s a clear night. Or it’s raining. The two fall into a relationship, where he cheats on her, or she cheats on him. They meet up again sometime later at a ballroom dance class, in preparation for a wedding – of a friend, or for Roland’s nuptials, or for Marianne’s – and the two end up going out for a drink. In some universes, Roland surprises Marianne at work one day with an endearingly odd proposal that only an apiarist could write. But when Marianne receives a dire diagnosis – or the “all clear” – she and Roland end up facing hard choices of another kind.
Though “Constellations” scene variations are often clustered together, some recur at different times throughout the play, providing “Constellations” with a narrative shape that’s not exactly linear, but rather more like the architecture of a carefully crafted dream.
VanArsdalen and Hejkal make all these shifts clearly and smoothly, visually aided by Daniel C. Walker’s lighting cues; and they tame Payne’s bear of a script. For I’m guessing that it’s much, much harder to memorize a series of scenes that echo each other so closely, with slight variations, than it is to memorize dialogue in a narrative that simply moves forward. The two actors play off each other well, and director Carla Milarch makes good use of the space – framed by (set designer Hejkal’s) glowing honeycomb backdrop – by having VanArsdalen and Hejkal move like particles that can’t decide whether to bond or break free already.
There are laughs and touching moments in “Constellations” – including one moment that’s exactly the same three times over, thus demonstrating the occasional inevitability in our lives – but overall, the play feels too slight to be wholly satisfying. Perhaps it’s because we’re shown different versions of the same few moments, instead of locking down on a single reality and digging far deeper.
For although Payne’s unconventional construct offers an intriguing prism through which to view seminal moments in these two characters’ lives, in the end, it feels less like an emotionally wrenching portrait than it does a crafty narrative trick – as if the recent flood of plays where two actors each play multiple roles has been neatly turned inside out, so they’re now asked to instead play several versions of the same two people.
Even so, with a certain romantic holiday on the horizon, “Constellations” offers a pretty perfect valentine of a date option, no matter what you each see when you look at it.
Theatre Nova’s “Constellations” plays at the Yellow Barn, 410 W. Huron in Ann Arbor, through February 18. For showtime and ticket info, visit https://www.theatrenova.org/.
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