Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Constellations
Wilma Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall


Sarah Gliko and Jered McLenigan
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev
How many meet cutes involve quantum mechanics? How many couples share their first kiss during a delineation of string theory, each stolen peck punctuating an explanation of the multiverse? Writers have worked tirelessly to reinvent the romantic comedy wheel over the years, but few have succeeded as surprisingly as Nick Payne. His heady two-hander Constellations, receiving its Philadelphia premiere at the Wilma Theater under the sensitive direction of Tea Alagic, is as delightful as it is devastating.

Please don't let what I've written scare you away. You don't need a PhD in cosmology to understand the heart of this story; at its core, it is really quite simple and beautiful. The play revolves around Marianne (Sarah Gliko), a theoretical physicist at Cambridge University, and Roland (Jered McLenigan), an urban beekeeper. Neither Marianne nor Roland hold "normal" jobs, and their experiences do not unfold in a "normal" linear manner. On an early date, Marianne explains the concept of parallel universes—a series of worlds seemingly existing side by side, in which the same people (or are they?) make different choices, necessitating different outcomes. This becomes the play's framing device: dialogue and scenes are routinely repeated, with minor alterations that can completely change the tone and tenor of Marianne and Roland's relationship.

It's a testament to Payne's skill that this never feels like a parlor trick or an acting exercise. It takes a smart and fearless writer to tackle a subject as dense as quantum theory, much less try to make it entertaining for a lay audience. And Payne's skill in shaping such obtuse material comes through in his frequently witty, often moving prose. He understands that a subtle beat in dialogue or an inversion of words influence the entire outcome of a scene. The audience can sit and watch Gliko or McLenigan repeat the same phrase, with a minor variation, a half-dozen times, and discover something new with each successive burst. In many ways, Payne's boundless curiosity and knack for pushing the audience just as far as it needs to go puts him in league with another English writer who has never been afraid to spin gold from the most challenging hay—the legendary Tom Stoppard.

Gliko and McLenigan (who are married in real life) also deserve much credit for delving so deep into the core of their characters. Or should I say cores? After all, Marianne and Roland are different people in each scene; this is communicated in a number of satisfying ways, right down to subtle changes in British dialect, from lace-curtain primness to jarring Cockney tones (Peter Schmitz is the excellent dialect coach). Roland is shy and reserved, Marianne boisterous and ebullient; the couple capture these essential traits with pinpoint precision, showing us how opposites really do attract. They radiate chemistry throughout the brief, uninterrupted seventy minutes of stage time.

Alagic takes a less-is-more approach with the production. The stage is essentially bare, with the actors foregrounded on a slightly elevated platform (the effective set design is by Matt Saunders). All connection and emotion are communicated through words and movement. Gliko and McLenigan are ace at this; subtle shifts in body language and slight changes in posture read loud and clear to the audience. Masha Tsimring's evocative lighting almost becomes a third character.

A major element of tragedy is the belief—either real or perceived—that things could have turned out differently. Payne understands this, and as the play moves from a lighthearted comedy to its more heartrending denouement, the play's structure becomes even more necessary in communicating the unspoken aspects of Marianne and Roland's life together. Faced with an unexpected turn of events that could bear down traumatic consequences, the couple must choose how to approach the future. They don't always agree. But there is a knowledge that in some parallel world, things might be slightly better. Or they might be slightly worse. Which experience is the real one? I think they all are.

Constellations continues at the Wilma Theater (265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia) through Sunday, February 5, 2017. Tickets ($10-35) can be purchased online at www.wilmatheater.org, by calling 215-546-7824, or by visiting the box office during business hours.


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