by Mike Hoban
‘Constellations’ – Written by Nick Payne Directed by Scott Edmiston; Susan Zeeman Rogers, Scenic Designer; Jeff Adelberg, Lighting Designer; Charles Schoonmaker, Costume Designer; Dewey Dellay, Sound Design & Composition. Presented by the Underground Railway Theatre at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge through October 8.
In 1998, Miramax released Sliding Doors, a “parallel universe” themed film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, about a woman whose life takes two completely different paths based on whether or not she makes it onto a subway train before said doors close. As it turns out, it wasn’t much of a movie, but the idea of exploring how the direction that one’s life takes based on the outcomes of seemingly random situations was really intriguing. Constellations, the brilliantly conceived two-hander now being staged at Central Square by the Underground Railway Theatre, takes that concept, puts in on steroids and produces a work that is enormously clever as well as touching – thanks in large part to its gifted leads, Marianna Bassham and Nael Nacer.
Playwright Nick Payne takes us through the seemingly limitless iterations of the relationship between quantum physicist Marianne and beekeeper Roland, from their awkward first flirtation to the sorrowful end. Their occupations are almost irrelevant to the story, other than the fact that neither one of their jobs involves much in the way of social interaction – he communes with the bees while she studies the ways the universe behaves at the scale of atoms, electrons and photons on a computer screen – so their lack of social proficiency lends a kind of adolescent charm to their early relationship.
Using something akin to a romantic flow chart, the story is told in short vignettes that are played repetitively with each different outcome signaling the direction that the relationship will take, sometimes going back into a loop for as many as a half dozen times before moving on to the new vignette that advances the story. So we see the pair meet, date, live together, break up, reunite, and encounter life’s ultimate challenge together, but as they do, we’re shown multiple outcomes for each situation, so we’re never sure what is “real”.
Adding another layer of complexity to the equation, the characters themselves seem to change from snippet to snippet, as evidenced by one repeating scene where Roland’s reactions to Marianne’s infidelity range from that of a wounded child to one of domestic violence. This is no lightweight rom-com. And despite its lack of a linear narrative, it’s a beautifully told love story, which, while delivering a ton of laughs, also packs an emotional wallop. Bassham and Nacer are nothing short of brilliant, and in less capable hands, this is a play that could easily go off the rails. Director Scott Edmiston paces the show perfectly, and the creative team of scenic designer Jeff Adelberg, lighting designer Charles Schoonmaker, and sound designer Dewey Dellay craft a stunning alternate universe for the actors to play in. At 75 minutes, the length of the piece is just about right, given that that much repetition could be a little tiring – no matter how many twists and turns there are to keep it interesting.
Following the performance, my friend turned to me and said, “That was a master class in acting”. Indeed it was, but Constellations is so much more. See it. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/