You have to wonder about a play that The New Yorker’s John Lahr calls a “singular astonishment,” and the Observer’s Rex Reed dismisses as “stupefyingly dreadful . . . 70 minutes of excruciating twaddle.” It’s almost as if these critics saw two different plays—or the same play, but in parallel universes, one of which employs people who use words like “twaddle.”
British playwright Nick Payne’s Constellations received largely enthusiastic reviews during a 2015 Broadway run starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson (The Affair), and premieres locally at the Jungle Theater in April, under the direction of Gary Gisselman.
Payne is a young British playwright whose penchant for intellectual gamesmanship has people comparing him with Tom Stoppard. In Constellations, he explores the connection between love and quantum physics. Specifically, certain aspects of string theory and the so-called “multiverse” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which posits that there isn’t just one universe unfolding through time; rather, there are a potentially infinite number of universes unfolding simultaneously, playing out every possible version of events, past and present, that have ever happened—or will ever happen. Throw in the idea of “quantum entanglement”—which suggests that two subatomic particles can be inextricably linked through space and time, even if they are billions of light years apart—and you’ve got a scientific basis for the idea of soulmates.
The play explores these ideas by theorizing about the cosmic love connection between Roland (Ron Menzel), a beekeeper, and Marianne (Anna Sundberg), a physics researcher specializing in something called “theoretical early universe cosmology.”
Writers bend the laws of physics all the time in order to invent stories that can’t be told any other way. Ideas like time travel, ghosts, and witchcraft make it possible to create a sense of wonder and wish- fulfillment in a world where the answers to life’s larger mysteries remain frustratingly vague. Part of the appeal of Constellations, however, is that the cosmic knot that binds Roland and Marianne together isn’t just deus ex machina, but rather a legitimate, increasingly mainstream theory of reality—and the implications are profound.
Boil the idea down to a single human life, for instance, and it means that everything you do—every decision, movement, or interaction—has a cosmic ripple effect, nudging this universe and millions of others in a different direction. Somewhere out there exists a you that got that great job, said the right thing, or married that hunk you met in Cabo.
In this case, Roland and Marianne meet at a party, and replay versions of their relationship in different “universes.” In one, she cheats on him; in another, he cheats on her; in another, he’s got kids from a divorce, etc. In each case, they still have a relationship, and even say many of the same things to each other, but—if this theory is true—something as subtle as a different tone of voice has the power to change, well, everything.
Constellations has been called the smartest date play ever, because it cleverly uses the most complex scientific ideas to explain the most basic of human desires: true love. It also lends credence to the popular idea that love can transcend death, because time and space are, according to quantum theory, illusions created by the mind’s limited capacity for perception.
Bear in mind that the play does all of this while also being funny and tender and, at times, heartbreaking. It’s only 70 minutes long, too, so if you do bring a date, there will be plenty of time afterwards to talk about it. Twaddle or not? Discuss. April 15–May 29. Jungle Theater, 612-822-7063, jungletheater.com