Constellations, playing through March 27 on Studio Theatre’s 4th Stage in Washington, is a slender play that uses its increasingly-familiar structure to illuminate less-familiar questions.
This is one of those Rashomon-like plays where we see the same scene played out in several different ways. Somebody gives a two-sentence explanation of physics (is it physics? I don’t science) and says we live in a “multiverse,” where every outcome that could occur does occur somewhere, and the play gives us windows into several of these divergent timelines. In the 70 minutes of Nick Payne’s play we see Mary and Roland meet at a barbecue, and a few of the many possible consequences of that meeting: maybe they date, maybe they kiss, maybe he gets creepy and she flees, maybe he proposes, maybe she says yes. Maybe she has strange symptoms, and the diagnosis is a tumor in her brain; maybe it’s benign. Maybe it isn’t.
The play flashes forward to show us scraps of scenes we’ll later see in full, as Mary (Lily Balatincz, who comes into her own when Marianne’s situation becomes grim) loses the ability to speak and begins to plan her suicide. Roland (the excellent Tom Patterson, able to radiate menace and goofiness and heartbreak within moments) wants her to choose life. Sometimes his attempts at persuasion strike a chord with her. Sometimes they make things worse.
At first it seems like the purpose of the multiple versions of events is to draw our attention to what remains constant. Attraction is a constant in Mary and Roland’s relationship; so is awkwardness; so is, maybe, adultery.
But as the play progressed a different theme emerged. Constellations explores the human drive for control. We try to control how others see us, what happens to us; we try so hard. And these attempts backfire, sometimes ridiculously and sometimes tragically, but we can’t stop wanting to have some part of our life that is our own: to perform some positive action other than acceptance.
Mary and Roland are both “try-hards.” They are just achingly awkward at first. They have the air of people who are used to being off-putting at first: too nerdy, too gawky, wanting too much to connect. And often their strenuous attempts at human connection make the other one retreat. The very strength of their desire to make themselves endearing is what makes them hard to take. The brief moments where Roland shows hints of violent or stalker tendencies (Mary, suddenly frightened: “Did you know I was going to be here?”) show the paradox most clearly: His attempts to control her only expose his own weakness, his own failure to control both the situation and himself.
By contrast the moments when one of them does give the other a chance—makes the choice to find the awkwardness endearing—can’t be worked for. The smile, the laugh, the decision to continue the conversation: These are the things our couple aches for, strives for, and must receive as gifts rather than earning as achievements.
You can see, then, how Mary’s diagnosis works here. There are a lot of possible responses to facing an early death while losing the ability to speak and read–one of the most hopeful and vivacious late scenes shows Mary and Roland having a recurring conversation in (untranslated) sign language—but in every universe it’s a profound loss of control.
And so Mary wants to claw back some control over the circumstances of her death. I think the audience is mostly going to side with Roland, and hope that he succeeds in persuading her to reconsider: His powerlessness and his love for her are so palpable, and although I’m not sure how much this matters to people, her arguments for her own position aren’t very strong.
But there are several moments in which Mary’s turning away from Roland in suicide is paralleled with her (some earlier version of “her”) simply choosing not to date him. When he wouldn’t accept her choice there, he became frightening and malevolent. So too here I think the structure of the play encourages you to see his willingness to let her choose—without manipulating or guilt-tripping her—as the form of acceptance he’s called to in this situation. Suicide falls on the “control” side of the play’s central control/acceptance dichotomy; and the play itself is deeply sympathetic to the longing for control, even as it exposes the absurdities and cruelties we commit in service to that longing.
There are a couple of flaws in the production–the music is intrusively treacly, the accents wobble—but if there’s one flaw in the play text it’s that I wish it were longer. I found myself wishing for some of the scenes we don’t see: We see the couple break up several times, for example, but we don’t see the way Mary’s diagnosis plays out in those universes, where she would have to face it alone. David Muse as director uses the tiny space well, letting the actors make it seem bigger than it is. The evening’s success can be marked by two things: the moment when, after a particularly intense scene, I thought to myself, Oh, it’ll be brutal to see the next version of this one; and the poignant hush with which the final line fell.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.