Marianne and Roland are drunk. They sit on the ground, their legs opened to one another, laughing. With blonde hair that curls just beneath his ears and a clear complexion, Roland is all boyish good looks.
“Do you know much about theoretical physics?” says Marianne, a petite brunette dressed in a white button-up shirt and navy blue capris. She wears a smile and no makeup. A clear British accent punctuates her speech.
“Pass,” says Roland, inching toward her.
Roland offers Marianne a smile that’s neither wolfish nor entirely earnest. He pulls himself closer as she explains string theory. The physics lesson sails over his head.
“This is genuinely turning me on, you do realize that?” he says smiling.
“In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes,” Marianne replies.
Higher physics is foreplay in Nick Payne’s drama “Constellations,” running through March 20 at Studio Theatre. This two-character play is an ode to missed opportunities and alternative endings—a celebration of the wistful ‘oh, what might have been.’ The moments in life when we’re faced with a choice, and the road we do not take haunts our conscious like a ghost. But there are no ghosts in “Constellations.” Within 70-minutes and 50 acts, a young couple experiences courtship, infidelity, marriage, and terminal illness on loop with myriad endings.
Charles Baxter, author of The Art of Subtext, Beyond Plot recommends writing characters into tight, enclosed spaces to produce friction. Nick Payne, the 32-year old playwright of “Constellations,” understands that the best drama doesn’t necessarily need an elaborate setting. Sometimes, putting two people in the same little room can have as much of an emotional effect as a bold, bombastic landscape.
“One of the first things I ask when I’m reading a play is ‘What does it need?” Debra Booth, the set designer for Studio Theatre told the Washington Post. “’Does it need a door for someone to walk through, a chair for someone to sit on?’ This play didn’t need any of that. It didn’t need a door, but it did need a wormhole.”
Intimate is perhaps the best word to describe the “Constellations” set at Studio Theatre. The audience enters a circular, coliseum-like structure and take a seat in one of the rows of benches. There are no armrests or dividers, so if a show is packed, guests will inevitably brush up against each other throughout the performance. Before the show begins, the stage is bathed in soft, blue light and eyes are drawn upwards, toward the art installation suspended from the ceiling. This installation, a configuration of long, slender florescent light bulbs, is like a third character. The audience knows that when the lights above flicker and change colors—signaling the end of a scene—Marianne and Roland are having another encounter, with another possible outcome, somewhere in a parallel universe.
“Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows?” says Marianne (Lily Balatincz) in the opening act. “They hold the secret to immortality, so if you lick them, there’s a chance you’d be able to live forever.”
Marianne smiles at Roland (Tom Patterson), whose name she doesn’t know yet.
“I’m. I’m in a relationship. So. Yeah,” says Roland. A low buzzing sound fills the performance space, and the light installation flickers off and on. On the circular, set-less stage, Marianne and Roland rotate to new positions, and Marianne tries again.
“Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows?”
“I’ve. I’ve just come out of a serious relationship. So. Yeah.”
The bulbs flicker again, and Marianne and Roland assume new stances. In act three, they’re at a barbeque and the sun is shining. In act four, there’s rain. (“Nothing worse than a soggy barbeque.”) In act five, Roland isn’t in a relationship, married, or recently separated. At last, they talk, and we learn that Marianne is an astrophysicist and Roland is a beekeeper.
Thanks to Balatincz and Patterson’s performances, the repetitive dialogue never grows tiresome. Though lines are repeated multiple times, the actors perform each act with different intonations, postures, and gestures, giving each sequence a different meaning. In “Constellations,” Marianne argues that time is nonlinear; likewise, the play isn’t chronological. Vignettes from the future and past interrupt the dramatic present. In one future, the couple faces a terminal illness. In another, Roland has an affair with a woman who’s presumably “balding.” One act folds into the next, and the audience can’t predict what’s to come.
“Constellations” plays with the mathematical possibility of parallel universes. Though string theory is highly contested in the physics community and time travel remains the stuff of fiction, scientific breakthroughs—such as the recent gravitational waves discovery—pique the popular imagination and foster an interest in the sciences. That’s why “Constellations” will break open the heart of any geek with romantic sensibilities.
Payne thanks a TV documentary on string theory for inspiring “Constellations.” In order to understand what string theory’s all about—and nab a few great lines of dialogue—Payne told the Guardian he interviewed many people while writing “Constellations.”
“One cosmologist I spoke to said: ‘Please don’t write a stuffy scientist.’ And I met a great beekeeper and shamelessly put some of what he said in the play. He was fine about that, thankfully,” said Payne.
Indeed, “Constellations” is filled with a balance of both hilarious and soul shattering moments. “Listen to me, please,” says Marianne. “The basic laws of physics don’t have a past a present. Time is irrelevant at the level of a-atoms and molecules. It’s symmetrical. We have all the time we’ve always had. You’ll still have all our time…There’s not going to be any more or less of it…Once I’m gone.”
I bought a copy of the play to keep the characters with me long after the performance ended, and Marianne and Roland ran offstage hand in hand.
Lauren Johnson is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a second-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.