Constellations Expertly Grabs Our Heads If Not Our Hearts

Elizabeth Bunch and Chris Hutchison in the Alley’s production of Constellations
Elizabeth Bunch and Chris Hutchison in the Alley’s production of Constellations Photo by Lynn Lane

Do we have a choice about what direction our lives will go? Is our path already laid out for us, inalterable by free will, determination or desire? Are the minutes, hours and days we spend with each other preciously finite or is time just a construct that we’ve made up to organize our thoughts?

Heady questions all – ones that many will turn to religion, spirituality or some form of humanistic teaching to answer.

But not playwright Nick Payne. Rather than notions of faith or rational humanistic thought, Payne instead leans fully, albeit quirkily, into the theories of quantum mechanics and manifold universes to make sense of the what if, and what if not possibilities that arrange a life. And he does so with great humor and humanity.

Constellations, now getting a more head than heart production at the Alley Theatre, follows Roland, a beekeeper, and Marianne, a University cosmologist through their romantic entanglement of meeting, dating, breaking up and staying together. “We’re part of a multiverse,” says a drunken Marianne to Roland on their first date. “At any given moment, several outcomes can coexist simultaneously.”

By the time the first date scene comes around, Payne makes sure we’ve already figured out the synchronic coexistence thing. It’s the party trick to the whole play after all. Structured as short scenes (some only seconds long) no scenario... not the first date, or how Marianne and Roland meet, or if they connect at all, is played just once. Instead, scenes and dialogue are revisited and repeated on a constant nonlinear loop, each time with a variation ranging from the smallest tone to a total narrative shift.

They meet but Roland is married. They meet but Roland just got out of a relationship and isn’t ready to date. They meet but Marianne isn’t interested. They meet and just don’t connect. They meet and there are sparks. And on and on throughout the entire trajectory of their potential romantic relationship.

It sounds exhausting or at least eye-roll worthy on paper – let’s mirror these quantum science/string theories in the structure of the play by looping storylines and showing that nothing is fixed or decided. And perhaps it would be insufferable if not for the brilliant crafting that Payne brings to the 70-minute script.

Like a supremely entertaining intellectual puzzle, Payne patiently adds information to each scene he walks us back on, expanding conversations, showing us alternatives, moving the love affair forward or disrupting it. Sometimes making Roland the ass and Marianne the goofy one, other times Roland is the gentle soul and Marianne the standoffish one. What will we get next, we wonder? Which combination is the one to move the couple forward? Will we be laughing next or disappointed? And why do we keep coming back to a mysterious, somewhat confusing scene full of worry and tension between the couple?

Performed on a bare, propless stage in a theater in the round setting, it falls to the actors to sell the whole concept and Elizabeth Bunch (Marianne) and Chris Hutchison (Roland) take Payne’s puzzle play and crank up the pure entertainment and thinky part of the play.

It takes great control and supreme nimbleness to, on a dime, switch emotions and tones as they do. One second Bunch may be pleading and Hutchison may be obstinate and then, poof, next scene requires that Hutchinson play vulnerable and Bunch act indifferently. And each time both do so with such fluidity that it feels like they are actorly water simply flowing and ebbing from one moment to the next. One scene in particular, done entirely in sign language, is body language master class worthy.

But while we fully embrace the thinking part of Payne’s script in these performances, we don’t get the emotional connection to the characters that’s needed if we’re to be truly moved by what we see. With any good story about connection, comes the possibility of disconnect, and, without spoiling the show, Payne gives us one of the most painful possibilities of ruin any couple could face. A possibility that tests the scientific theory of the importance and even existence of time itself.

Truthfully, it’s a struggle to pinpoint where the issue lies. Perhaps it’s the fault of Payne for writing such an abundance of scenes that we never really get to spend enough quality time with either character to be fully invested in their happiness together? Maybe Director Leslie Swackhamer didn’t push her cast to go deeply enough into the emotional part of the narrative? Maybe Bunch and Hutchison (a real-life couple) just don’t have great chemistry on stage?

Whatever the issue is, when the gut punch highs and lows come in the script, we react not with romantic glee or heartbroken sorrow, we instead stay in our puzzle-solving heads and say aha…so that’s what happens. Still, a fine way to enjoy this excellent show, if not quite a fully realized experience.

Constellations continues through June 2 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $47-$70.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman