By Karen Isaacs
Is Constellations, the play by Nick Payne now selling out at the Manhattan Theater Clubs’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater, a brilliant play, an intellectual and acting exercise, or simply pretentious?
It is hard to decipher this brief piece. It runs just 70 minutes though the day I saw it, the play started 10 minutes late perhaps to make it seem longer.
What can be said is that Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson are giving brilliant performances.
We meet Roland and Marianne — in fact we meet them multiple times as they meet each other in multiple scenes. The gimmick of this play is that it is a series of very brief scenes that are played over and over again, sometimes with different outcomes.
So the two meet at a soggy barbecue multiple times — sometimes the exchange goes well and sometimes it doesn’t or the potential relationship is aborted because Roland is married or attached. The other scenes in this play about their relationship are also repeated.
So what really happens? That is left up to each of us to decide, but it would appear that the two get together, it is possible that Marianne has major health scare and one of them is unfaithful.
Is it an attempt at intellectual complexity that Marianne is a quantum cosmologist while Roland is a beekeeper? It certainly gives her the opportunity to talk a great deal about chance, the importance of what we do and what we don’t do and more. And Roland is given the opportunity — at least twice — to explain the life cycle of the members of the hive.
But though most critics found the work amazing and deep, several people dozed off around me. Perhaps re-seeing or reading this play might make me appreciate it more.
Yet thanks to the superlative acting of the two, you do come to care about these characters. Marianne is quirky and feels awkward in relationships; her conversation is often unexpected and Ruth Wilson gives the character a number of physical attributes that reveal her basic insecurities with men and romance. Gyllenhaal provides Roland with his own set of insecurities and does not rely on good looks or surface charm. We perhaps feel we understand Marianne more than Roland; for some reason you sense more of her past than his. Why is a bee keeper? Why does he seem wounded in some ways?
Each is tentative as they approach this romance. You hope that it goes well because you like them as characters; perhaps they remind us of our own tentative efforts at connections with others and how both transitory and accidental they be.
The set by Tom Scutt features numerous large white balloons that at times move and with the help of lighting designer Lee Curran change colors.
Director Michael Longhurst — who directed the Royal Court production in London — has helped his performers get the most of this piece which could seem like just an acting exercise — repeating dialogue but varying tone, emphasis, facial expressions and body language to alter meanings.
While I still wonder if Constellations isn’t more gimmick than play, I have found myself thinking about it ever since I saw it. So that means it has interested and stirred me.
Constellations is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on W. 47th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge. The show is a limited run through March 15.