British writer Nick Payne’s lauded play at Seattle Rep applies theoretical physics to the relationship between a beekeeper and a scientist.
Roland and Marianne, a beekeeper and a theoretical physicist, meet at a barbecue and strike up a casual conversation.
From there, what can happen to this attractive British pair in Nick Payne’s lauded two-hander “Constellations”? In a “multiverse” where chance and will and relativity allow for infinite permutations of behavior, will they have a passing acquaintance? A grand romance? Or something between and beyond?
Now in its local debut at Seattle Repertory Theatre, “Constellations” spins out some of the innumerable possibilities. Payne’s ingenious if overly schematic maze of a play has its own variations of wit, poignancy and tedium.
by Nick Payne. Through Feb. 21 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle; $15-$67 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
The winning actors, Max Gordon Moore (a Seattle native last seen at the Rep at age 13, in “Marvin’s Room”), and a radiant, ever-versatile Alexandra Tavares, execute an extraordinarily demanding dance together that keeps us invested in their characters. (And not just in the scenes where they are actually dancing.)
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On a bare, tilted wooden stage, they cycle through dozens of potential responses to a cluster of pivotal encounters between the characters, many relayed in random order.
There is the first-date dilemma: Will the spacey, spontaneous Marianne and more earthbound Roland sleep together or not, decide to get involved or not? We see how the admission of an outside affair might destroy their relationship — or strengthen it. Confrontations with mortality and loss also diverge, as do responses to a chance meeting at a ballroom-dancing class, before (or after) the affair they might have had.
The influence of other physics-savvy dramatists like Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn is evident in “Constellations” — especially whenever Marianne ponders human behavior in the theoretical (and very debatable) concept of parallel and alternative universes existing within an infinity of space and time.
These wonkier bits are clearly articulated by the marvelous Tavares. And director Desdemona Chiang’s incisive staging choreographs the hourlong piece in continual, circling motion without blurring the borders between dozens of micro-scenes and longer encounters, or ignoring times of meaningful stillness.
“Constellations” often relies on subtle gradations of emotion and shifts of verbal emphasis and tone for effect. Moore and Tavares nail much of that. And their sensitive mutual rapport feels more natural and reciprocal than the showier interplay between Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in the Broadway version.
But Payne’s central conceit is overworked, and feels gimmicky when the flyby variations pile on excessively. When “Constellations” zooms in for a more intimate view of the star-life of this couple, that’s when their choices matter most.