"Constellations"

Musician Bobby Williams (l), Laurel Hoffman as Marianne and Max Elinsky as Roland

“Constellations” is a typical one-act boy-meets-girl play by British dramatist Nick Payne that debuted in London in 2012 and ran on Broadway in 2015. But here, the boy meets the girl again and again and again in 65 scenes across 68 minutes.

On a bare platform in the middle of convergence-continuum’s long and narrow performance space, we witness a first encounter between Marianne (Laurel Hoffman), a Cambridge University astrophysicist, and Roland (Max Elinsky), a beekeeper. There she shares her research on the scientific theory that the universe, as we understand it, is actually a quantum multiverse, where every choice – every decision we’ve ever and never made – exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.

And so we observe the evolution of their relationship – the awkward mutual insecurity that defines a first encounter over drinks, the growing comfort and sense of familiarity, a later infidelity, and the prospect of mortality after the young Marianne is diagnosed with a brain tumor – through this perspective of a universe with infinite possibilities. Every scene is played and replayed in revised form, leading to unlimited outcomes and immeasurable destinies.

“Constellations” in wonderfully romantic, for each of these scenes no matter their manifestation is about love or loss.

This play can certainly be infuriating for those unwilling to accept nonlinear storytelling that offers a multifaceted dramatic arch where it is never clear, for instance, who initiated contact with whom, whether Marianne or Roland is the unfaithful party, or just where Marianne’s diagnosis leads. But it does allow the rest of us to celebrate the journey rather than the destination and enjoy the moment rather than the cumulative collection of them. And, for those so inclined, an ideal story with the desired beginning, middle and end can be pieced together from the assorted pieces and parts.

Unfortunately, this con-con production under Geoffrey Hoffman’s direction is not without a few impediments that impact its realization of the playwright’s intentions.

One is the staging. While this play requires only a space for the two actors to do their cosmic dance, Scott Zolkowski offers nothing inventive in the scenic design to add a touch of stardust to the romantic proceedings. And there is nothing to be gained by watching the talented Bobby Williams provide musical interludes and sound effects for the temporal transitions from the left corner of the performance space. Also, because of the audience’s close proximity to the actors, Eva Nel Brettrager’s lighting fails to provide the necessary darkness between scenes to prevent us from witnessing the ungainly movements of actors rewinding for another take of the scene they just performed. Seeing the mechanics of stagecraft tends to undermine them.

The biggest barrier to achieving what the playwright had in mind is the lack of chemistry between Hoffman and Elinsky. His sincere but understated and often charmless portrayal of Roland suggests a young man who spends more time with bees than human beings and who takes little actual interest in Marianne or anything else. And this never quite changes across the scenic retakes, which gives Hoffman’s more expressive Marianne too little to work with. Much of the necessary subtext the two need to provide to help establish the various renditions of love and loss never sufficiently surfaces.

An intimate two-hander grounded in theoretical physics needs to resonate with the audience on a molecular level in order for it to be as compelling and as emotionally devastating as desired.  For its production, the folks at con-con have chosen an alternate universe where this does not occur.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio SPJ best critic.

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Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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