Review: Bartlett’s Production of ‘Constellations’ Falls Just Short of Selling Cosmic Love Story

By Kim Jackson

One man, one woman, a sparse stage, and infinite possibilities. Will they get together? Will they stay together? How long will it last? Playing out every circumstance, consequence, and each possible scenario is the basic premise of Bartlett Theater’s production of Constellations. It can be an entertaining intellectual exercise to imagine the possibilities of various trajectories and explore the idea of parallel existences, however, for the experiment to work, both the characters and circumstances have to be compelling. We have to care about them and their journey.

Essentially Nick Payne, the British playwright behind Constellations, is exploring how the course of events can be altered by a variety of things, from timing to choices. The subjects of his experiment are Marianne, a Cambridge physicist, and Roland, a beekeeper. As Marianne explains to Roland, “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” Roland finds Marianne’s science seductive, and this time-space theory is the basis of the plot.

Several outcomes from a single encounter can exist simultaneously. What is and isn’t communicated influences events. Even small variations can alter the course of events.

Sometimes the fragile relationship survives the various challenges, and other times it doesn’t. While Marianne longs for control, it is clear that choice is but a single variable in affecting any given outcome. Fate can take many different routes.

And presenting all those different paths in a tight 80 minutes is a challenge posed to both the actors and the creative team. Director Chris Woodworth wants to place the focus on those rippling moments that alter the narrative. Marianne, resolutely played by Emily Rieder, is a Jekyll and Hyde of sorts. Sometimes she is a nerdy, awkward, intellectual. Other times she is wielding a false bravado of f-bombs. Roland, on the other hand, as played by Jon Parker Douglas, is more constant throughout, quirky, yet engaging and sensitive (for the most part). The pair pivot through repeated scenes, some with slight shifts in the conversational tone, others with more dramatic loops or reversals, all broken up by quick transitions that heighten the drama. Payne’s non-linear storytelling emphasizes shifts in time and underlines the whole time as a construct argument. Creative lighting and screen projections by Stevan Dupor and Areon Mobasher signal the movement between the evolving universes.

But for  a cosmic love story, this one was surprisingly devoid of intimate intensity. Where were the sparks that light up the universe? Where is that chemistry of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s Oscar moment? Confrontations over infidelity and the pain of a medical diagnosis, situations that typically fuel emotions, barely flicker. These scenes seemed designed to reflect the tenor of the relationship and evoke empathy, but they feel more like mere plot contrivances.

Rieder and Douglas efficiently and competently manage the 50 scene changes with great fluidity, yet something was missing. While the premise is compelling, the delivery was less engaging.  Both actors did a fine job of creating distinctive mannerisms as circumstances and scenes shifted, but the seductive quality of their attachment and connection to each other just didn’t come through. Maybe in a parallel universe, those connections resonate more fully.

Constellations runs through March 24th. For more information visit http://bartletttheater.org/.

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