The universe — its origins, purpose, and infinite size — continues to perplex us. Questions relating to why we are here, our destiny, and where we are going are asked every day by like-minded individuals looking for deeper meanings within the grandiosity of life. And, love, being that it is as peculiar as the universe that bore it, is one of the most blessed things that can happen to us en route to a greater fulfillment.
But even the possibility of love with someone we’re perhaps “fated” to be with bears innumerable possibilities and contingencies within the context of a very scientific, and perhaps amoral, universe. With respect to the labyrinth of time, not to mention string theory and quantum mechanics, our universe might entail much more than what we can observe. That is, there very well might be non-linear parallel universes, or a multiverse, that has always merged the past with the present, rolling the dice on every decision or moment of inaction we’ve ever had.
This space-time quandary is at the forefront of “Constellations” — a cosmic, multitemporal love story set in England focusing on Marianne (Ginnifer Goodwin), a quantum physicist, and Roland (Allen Leech), a beekeeper. Written by Nick Payne, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, and featuring only two performers on stage for an uninterrupted, 80-minute duration, the Geffen Playhouse-produced play (through July 16th), compellingly examines the various spectrum of possibilities, challenges, and emotions that Marianne and Roland encounter. Their odyssey is an emotionally and intellectually provocative one, sparking engaging debate and discussion long after it has ended.
The narrative explores five stages of Marianne and Roland’s evolving romance – and the trajectory-affected permutations of each one. These include their first encounter at a barbecue, initial stages of intimacy at Marianne’s flat, relationship strife, relationship renewal, and an overarching, life-altering illness that Marianne must face with Roland’s help. The urgency of the latter cuts through time, binding the two through both the good times and the bad.
The audience is apprised of different time loops (and their degree of significance) experienced by Marianne and Roland via a simple, but highly effective set and lighting design by Takeshi Kata and Lap Chi Chu, respectively. The orb-like stars above the stage change colors, or turn off completely, to alert to the beginning of another chain of events involving the two.
Sometimes the discrepancies are subtle, but not entirely the same, incorporating a few new words. In other instances, the same words might be spoken differently – with a distinguishable tone – or using slightly contrasting body language. Or, perhaps, the outcome changes markedly, but this is a little rarer. These nuances are particularly challenging for any experienced actor, but Goodwin and Leech excel at communicating the minutest variation, going from one sentiment to the next without any recovery time or sip of water. They impressively pick up on their countless cues without a moment’s notice, as their scenes are carried out with acute awareness and timing. And, one gets the feeling that Goodwin and Leech exercise much autonomy over their acting choices, thanks to Sardelli’s focused but flexible directorial style.
Because of this freedom, Leech, of “Downton Abbey” renown, is terrific at reeling in the audience members with his aptitude for humor, and then deeply affecting them by how his character processes the trials and tribulations surrounding his Roland and especially Marianne. For instance, when they first meet at the BBQ, we see Roland hilariously rebuff Marianne in a string of alternate realities, who curiously asks him to lick his elbow (“the key to eternal life”). Here, Leech’s facial expressions alone, as skillfully understated as they are, draw great reactions. The same can be said for when, as Roland, he is drying his sweaty hands in successive loops before waltzing with Marianne at a ballroom class, or giving a similar speech about three different types of bees. Paradoxically, the audience seems to laugh louder with each parallel scenario that is carried out.
Much of Roland’s affability is attributable to the straightforward innocence that Leech gives him, yielding a seemingly renewed life and viability to every “take” of probable consequences. The simple, uncomplicated beekeeper ultimately wants the best for his significant other, despite relationship troubles, and when Marianne is faced with her harrowing challenge, we care as deeply as Leech does – as observed through the vessel of his selfless persona.
Marianne is, moreover, a remarkable role for Goodwin, who delivers a stellar performance as the somewhat awkward but lovable girl next door who just happens to be a specialist in a complicated subject. Goodwin fills Marianne with an infectious energy who loves her work and can charmingly demonstrate relativity using two couch pillows, making even non-science people excited about what they’re hearing. Of course, Marianne’s belief in the free will-divested multiverse doctrine that “you’ve done everything you’ve ever done and everything you’ve never done,” is the sweeping force that drives the play until Marianne is confronted with the state of her condition and hence her mortality. At this point, she desires to have “control” over what has happened to her — and Goodwin poignantly gets this across as a reflection upon what it means to be human in the face of a presumed science. It is, suffice it to say, a temporary but comforting illusion.
Another notable moment with Goodwin includes a scene where she communicates exclusively in BSL (British Sign Language), cogently funneling her sound-less frustration over to Leech’s Roland, with an engrossing silence that startles intensely when Goodwin merely stomps her foot. Though the most eye-opening of all is when Goodwin repeats the same line about inviting Leech to a reconciliation over drinks, except in every case the inflection of her voice, the look in her eyes, and the furrow of her brow reveal divergent implications in a long line of infinite possibilities.
Strengthened by a superb and intellectually riveting script by Nick Payne, director Giovanna Sardelli adroitly manages physics with love in “Constellations,” both lovingly linking the two and putting them at tragic odds. Science is logical and emotions usually aren’t, as we often find ourselves searching for a justice that might be fundamentally irrelevant in the grander scheme of the universe. Nevertheless, the alternating realities and accompanying energies shared by Goodwin and Leech is akin to witnessing a passionate pair dance across the ages, transcending the very fabric of endless time, and beckoning ourselves to look inwardly at the choices we’ve made and prioritized.
For more information about “Constellations” at the Geffen Playhouse, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/constellations