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A romantic two-hander spun out of string theory, in which the significant moments of a couple’s life together are played out in different directions across infinite parallel paths? That sounds on paper like a cerebral exercise, designed to test audiences’ concentration while actors flex their muscles. But British playwright Nick Payne‘s beguiling Constellations is not only a full-bodied narrative, it’s a richly affecting experience. That’s thanks to the sensitivity of the writing, but also to the warmth, humor and vitality invested in it by Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, giving two astonishing performances in a production from Michael Longhurst that’s as rigorous as it is tender.
First seen to great acclaim in 2012 at London’s Royal Court Theatre with Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall, the production comes to New York via Manhattan Theatre Club and has been ideally recast. Gyllenhaal is riding high on critical and awards-season attention for his maniacally riveting turn in Nightcrawler, while the secret is out on seasoned English stage actress Wilson after her terrific TV work on Luther and The Affair. Neither of them could have asked for a more distinctive entrée to Broadway. The pithiness and intellectual curiosity of the writing and the experimental structure might be somewhat reminiscent of eminent Brit playwrights like Caryl Churchill, Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard, but there’s an emotional directness, even a humanity, if you will, that sets Constellations apart.
The play runs a fleet 70 minutes and includes multiple variations on a number of short two-character exchanges that’s relatively limited by most dramaturgical standards. Yet it’s packed with both incident and depth as it explores the many possible developments of a relationship that begins (or sometimes ends) when beekeeper Roland (Gyllenhaal) and Cambridge cosmologist Marianne (Wilson) meet at a party.
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The economy of means with which the production establishes a visual equivalent for Payne’s ricocheting text is one of its chief pleasures. Designer Tom Scutt places the two actors on a stark, shining black dais, surrounded by darkness, with a cluster of white helium balloons above and all around them, evoking both a pillowy cloud formation and a stylized garden. On the most basic level, the image is that of a festive gathering, in keeping with the couple’s first encounter. But as lighting designer Lee Curran‘s colors ping kinetically through those balloons at varying intervals to mark each jump in the temporal universe, the stage becomes a constantly shifting molecular field.
Longhurst and movement director Lucy Cullingford choreograph Gyllenhaal and Wilson around this space with pinpoint precision, and yet their pas de deux remains graceful and fluid throughout. The looseness with which both actors navigate the tricky text and the whiplash behavioral switches of their characters suggests a rehearsal process that was as much military drill as emotional investigation.
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Very little can be said about the course of their relationship without diminishing the play’s rewards. But it begins with Marianne’s unlikely opening conversational gambit about the ability to lick one’s own elbow unlocking the secret of immortality. In a number of cases Roland brushes her off quickly, claiming to be married, in a relationship or just out of one and looking to stay unhitched. In other outcomes, however, he’s receptive to her blundering overtures, leading to subsequent dates, romance, cohabitation and marriage, or different combinations thereof. He tells her about being an apiarist, memorably incorporating a paean to the clarity of purpose in a bee’s life into his proposal. She gives him a crash course in the quantum multiverse, causing him at times to glaze over, at others to respond with a hunger to learn more.
The signposts of their relationship are familiar ones: The discovery of a genuine connection, the joy of mutual happiness, the insecurities of wayward hearts, the sting of betrayal and rejection. There’s also the sorrow of serious illness, resulting in momentous life choices to be approached either alone or together.
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What’s so remarkable about Payne’s play and Longhurst’s beautiful production is the awareness that all of this could easily have been dry and academic. Instead, it’s exquisitely real, and despite the shared experience of Roland and Marianne being related in fragments that keep veering off on new tangents all the way through the final scenes, their love story is profoundly involving and also quite moving.
The range displayed by both actors is impressive indeed, and their chemistry unquestionable. Wilson’s character is the classic socially awkward brainiac with a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease. She makes Marianne slyly funny but also prickly, defensive and volatile — sometimes guarded and nervous, other times brittle and angry. Her performance is a complex symphony of ever-changing movements.
Gyllenhaal made an admirable New York stage debut off-Broadway in 2012 in Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, a less striking study of the chaos and comfort of human relationships. But the actor’s work here is in another league, swinging from open to standoffish, from vulnerable to cool, from sweet and shy to charming and self-assured. His ambling physicality in the role is expertly disciplined but appears entirely natural, while his English accent is flawless.
Constellations is the first Broadway opening of the year and it sets the bar high. Would that more plays were as compact and lively, as intellectually and emotionally stimulating as this one.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ruth Wilson
Director: Michael Longhurst
Playwright: Nick Payne
Set & costume designer: Tom Scutt
Lighting designer: Lee Curran
Music: Simon Slater
Sound designer: David McSeveney
Movement director: Lucy Cullingford
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, Royal Court Theatre, by special arrangement with Ambassador Theatre Group and the Dodgers
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