Constellations asks the question: What if the consequences of all possible choices coexist as parallel realities? It's a well-worn idea at this point—both the X-Men and Star Trek franchises have raided string theory's shiniest trappings, and all three Butterfly Effect movies have, I assume, made physicists tear their hair out over Hollywood's interpretations.
Nick Payne's play doesn't dig too deeply into the science of quantum theory, which is probably for the best, since Constellations is really about love.
It opens with two strangers standing side by side at a mutual friend's barbecue. Marianne, an academic focused on "theoretical early universe cosmology," sidles up to Roland, an aloof beekeeper, and asks him, "Do you know why it's impossible to lick the tips of your elbows?" After a few seconds during which Marianne explains the goofy notion that elbows hold the key to immortality, Roland shuts her down. "I'm in a relationship," he says, and the stage lights go out.
At least that would be the end in a strictly linear world. Marianne, embarrassed, would probably just slink away and Roland would carry on with his girlfriend. Instead, the lights come up and Roland and Marianne meet in the same scene again and again, with slight variations each time. Sometimes Marianne's delivery is a little more suave and sometimes Roland is more receptive—and single—until finally the meet-cute becomes a love connection. Once that part of the story is settled, additional scenarios and multiple outcomes materialize. Between these scenarios are interludes during which we hear Marianne and Roland in voiceover—conversations yet unspoken, as if on loan from the future.
Between The Lines Theatre's production of Constellations is directed by Mason Wagner and stars Jeff Medley as Roland and Kate Scott as Marianne. Medley has played plenty of outrageous characters on local stages, including Riff Raff in Montana Actors' Theatre's annual Halloween production of The Rocky Horror Show. This is a chance to see him flex his theatrical muscles in a much more restrained role. He still offers some well-timed comedy, but most of the idiosyncrasies fall to Scott, who embraces her character's geekiness without John Hughes-style cliché.
It's also refreshing to see a female character bumbling through the dating process in a real way. In one scene, Marianne laments the clothing she's worn to a ballroom dance class, which leads to her crotch becoming an "inferno" or a "hot house" or "a sauna," depending on which parallel universe she's overheating in. (Roland, depending on the universe, is either horrified or turned on by this.) It's these funny, uncouth lines that keep a play exploring the mysteries of space and time from playing too preciously.
Later, as the storyline grows darker, the play's language becomes even more interesting. "Before people had face. Face. Face. Before they had God," Marianne says, stumbling over her words. She can't figure out how to say "faith," and it's one of our first hints something is wrong with her.
There are plenty of pitfalls in Constellations, just by virtue of its conceit. The multiple scenarios make it harder to relate to the characters on an emotional level. Which version do you invest in? If all realities exist equally, what's really at stake?
This is a difficult script in which lines are repeated with only slight tweaks, and while its execution is an impressive feat, it can also feel like an acting exercise, especially at the beginning, when the concept overwhelms the action. But Medley and Scott make up for it, patiently building intimacy with each other through multiple encounters, without overacting. In this same manner they build a relationship with the audience. By the end, the nature of time has become less important than two people in search of one, sweet, authentic moment.
Constellations continues at the Roxy Thu., Feb. 9-Sun., Feb. 12. 7 PM nightly Thu.-Sat., plus 2 PM matinee on Sat. Sun. show is at 5 PM. $20.