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The course of true love never did run smooth: Romeo and Juliet had their feuding families to worry about; Jack and Ennis faced an entire hateful society; and Jack and Rose found their short romance thwarted by class strife and a giant sinking ship. But few star-cross’d lovers have ever had to overcome the entirety of the cosmos conspiring to keep them apart, as Roland and Marianne do in Studio Theatre’s multiverse-bending, mind-expanding Constellations.
Playwright Nick Payne’s tidy two-hander turns a laser focus on the (many) lives of beekeeper Roland (Tom Patterson) and theoretical physicist Marianne (Lily Balatincz), using the latter’s quantum mechanics background as a springboard for examining not just one lifetime between these two lovers, but all possible lifetimes. The actors reproduce each pivotal moment in the lovers’ relationship several times, starting with Marianne’s disaster of a nerdy, elbow-licking pickup line, stumbling over the many ways each moment could go wrong (Roland’s not available, Marianne’s not available, Roland’s just flat out not interested) before finally landing, à la Groundhog Day, on the one way of doing it all just right: The stars align, and Marianne’s line somehow, against all odds, works.
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This all unfolds beneath twinkling, multicolored LED tubes suspended in a jumble above set designer Debra Booth’s intimate, cozy coliseum. The audience is invited to lounge from the stands on pillows that are provided just outside the small arena; the overall effect is of eavesdropping on a relationship from a comfortable (if you arrive early and stake out enough space to not be forced to sit pretzel-legged for an hour) perch on a hillside over a warm, clear summer night. These tubular stars do a lot of the heavy work of connecting the disparate themes of the play—the characters are more inclined to talk about stuff on the quantum level (or the bee-colony level, in Roland’s case). Although for my money, it’d be hard to beat the original West End (or, later, Jake Gyllenhaal on Broadway) staging, which consisted of a multitude of lit-up balloons that deliver an emotional gut punch once their plot significance is finally revealed.
The thing about Roland and Marianne’s relationship, as expertly and painstakingly crafted as it is by the two winsome young leads, is that the playwright has spent so much time showing the many ways they might never meet, or might fall apart, or might never ever get back together, that we’re left with almost no scenes showing why we’re meant to root for the relationship in the first place. Arguably—unless Roland and Marianne harbor a secret desire to live out a Nicholas Sparks plot—the ideal versions of themselves exist in those universes where they don’t get tied, improbably and ill-fatedly, together.
Still, as emotionally wrenching as their final destination may be, seeing the multitude of ways their lives could fall apart emphasizes how special and rare it is to find love with anyone at all. There are so many different versions of Roland and Marianne that it’s impossible not to encounter one that could remind someone of their own past loves. There’s a strong invitation to fill in the gaps between their most turbulent moments with personal memories of happier times.
Roland and Marianne manage to veer, improbably, toward each other, even while the multiverse seems destined to tear them apart. The only thing more unlikely than their relationship is how this play, magically, endearingly, manages to turn what could easily be an evening of emotional masochism into a beautiful night of theater.
1501 14th St. NW. $20–$60. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.