The multiverse theory suggests that multiple realities exist, that every choice a person could make, every thing a person could do, is made and done simultaneously, and that what we know as reality is simply one version of the infinite possibilities of outcomes. It's a theory that's tested, for example, in the original musical, If/Then (in particular, listen to the song, "Some Other Me"), and in one of the greatest episodes of Community, "Remedial Chaos Theory." Now, the multiverse theory plays out, beautifully, in Nick Payne's play, Constellations.
This two-hander sees Marianne (Ruth Wilson) and Roland (Jake Gyllenhaal) as they play out various possibilities of the same situation. For example, the first set of scenes is set at a barbecue where the pair meet. The very first iteration of the meeting ends quickly when Roland mentions his girlfriend. The lights change, the actors reset and we see another possible iteration, one in which both are single. Constellations continues in this manner, with about five or six sets of scenes, each iteration varying slightly. Between some of these sets, there are snippets of a single version of a single scene, making the conclusion of Constellations land with a more powerful impact.
It's fascinating to explore the vastness of possibilities in a lifetime even though "time" is in question throughout. Marianne, a cosmologist, asserts that time is irrelevant. Because of the multiverse, at any given moment we have all the time we'll ever have. She is unafraid of an ending, in whatever form and to whatever situation, because you can't go on living and living. And since every choice is happening simultaneously, they aren't actually choices—we don't have free will. Rather, everything that happens is pre-destined.
While that theory works for Marianne, it doesn't fully satisfy Roland, a beekeeper. (The simple set, designed by Tom Scutt, integrates both points of view. The playing space appears to be floating on the stage; the floor bares a honeycomb pattern. Above and around, balloons (actually lighting fixtures) are suspended, suggesting the constellations.) At one point, Roland gives a speech about how bees have a specific purpose. He likes the simplicity, symmetry and preciseness of a bee's life, and marvels at how wonderful it would be if life were actually that simple, if there were one truth, one reality.
These provocations and musings play out in a beautiful production, directed by Michael Longhurst. (Payne, Longhurst and Gyllenhaal previously collaborated on Payne's If There is I Haven't Found it Yet.) The universality of life and possible anonymity we have within the multiverse is punctuated by Scutt's costume design. Both actors wear shoes that are the same color and fabric, and their clothes are monochrome. Wilson is dressed in a pink palette, aubergine jeans and a mauve blouse. Gyllenhaal is dressed in blue jeans and a chambray oxford. They're basically wearing the same costume except one is the woman's version and the other is the man's. Neither costume betrays any personality traits or personal style. The color palette extends throughout the production, especially and effectively in Lee Curran's lighting design.
Ruth Wilson (who just won a Golden Globe for her performance in Showtime's The Affair and who, though she's making her Broadway debut, is a two-time Olivier Award winner for her work on the West End) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) are sensational. As the gentleman sitting in front of me loudly whispered to his wife during the performance, "It's an acting exercise." He meant this as a denigration of the play, but I see it as a bonus.
Payne wrote a beautiful play, and much like the theories explored on the page, the production allows the actors and director to explore a multitude of interpretations. During a post-show talkback, Payne said that the script has about two stage directions, and neither suggests what the actors' intentions should be. So, yes, in addition to being a complex play exploring some of the greatest questions of "time," it is also an acting exercise, and Wilson and Gyllenhaal rise to the occasion.
I am particularly impressed, and you will be, too, with how they are able to continually reset and play each scene with different intentions while never being disingenuous. Each variation on each theme comes across as if Marianne and Roland are fully developed characters—full, dynamic people who are living each variation for the first time. I think to be able to change the emotion you're conveying so quickly, without so much as a moment to breathe and have it ring true, is a wonderful talent, and Wilson and Gyllenhaal's sincerity keeps Constellations from becoming, unintentionally, a farce.