Reviewer Ben Brantley of The New York Times said in 2015 that playwright Nick Payne's Constellations "may be the most sophisticated date play Broadway has seen," calling it "supremely articulate." Here at SFR, we aren't really into quoting other publications, but this kind of exalting praise from such a print behemoth gave us pause. Really? Really, New York Times? Them's fightin' words.
Well, we gotta just see this for ourselves, then.
Constellations, currently staged at the Adobe Rose Theatre by Just Say It Productions, is indeed articulate, and becomes only more so as the minutes tick by (there are about 80 of them, with no intermission). The characters are Marianne (Alexandra Renzo) and Roland (Scott Harrison), two intelligent and complicated people who fall in love. Using a basis of string theory that never feels heavy, the script employs a kind of record-scratch device to show all the different ways in which their meeting, their interactions and their eventual denouement could have happened.
This has been described as a play about nerds in love—and sure, maybe it is, a little bit—but not cringe-inducing fedora-tipping "m'lady" Reddit nerds. Marianne is a physicist at Cambridge University and Roland is a beekeeper, and through seemingly infinite natural-feeling interactions, two slightly awkward but ultimately sexualized and complete characters emerge.
The play hits its stride when, during one of its many first-date scenarios, Harrison splays on the floor, bemusedly watching Renzo's Marianne circle him, gesturing wildly, talking about relativity and quantum mechanics and explaining how, in order to have multiple or infinite choices, it could indeed be that there are multiple or infinite universes in which all of those choices have played out, and there are then multiple or infinite replicas of each of us in those universes.
Roland, slightly drunk, leans back. "This is really sexy, by the way."
It was the first moment that struck me in the gut: This playwright knows exactly what he's doing.
Payne's script only continues to impress, and Renzo and Harrison only continue to do it justice. Right down to the phenomenon that, when it comes to having sex with someone new, somehow six times is the universal magic number at which you start to consider it seriously (what is that about, anyway?), Payne has tapped into a remarkable 21st-century collective subconscious about dating and romantic interaction that hits hard and never stops coming, yet is never sentimental or formulaic.
This show could easily have fallen on its face, but Renzo and Harrison have built a watertight ship. Renzo particularly excels as the loving but complex Marianne—even the slightest turn of her head or dip of her chin speaks volumes. She settles so deeply into the character that she becomes virtually unrecognizable from previous roles or offstage interaction.
For Harrison, Renzo is a tough act to follow, and he takes a bit longer to build up to her level. As the show ramps up, it's difficult to tell whether he's playing lower-energy or simply is lower-energy. There's never any lag between lines, mind you, and the shifts between possible emotions and outcomes are effortless in his hands, but herein lies the difficulty when you're paired with a formidable actress. You can be simply fantastic, yet are always one-upped.
That being said, Harrison doesn't disappoint. In the show's climactic scene—which, for a show so strongly based on dialogue and vocal nuance, was boldly scripted with no words exchanged—he catches up to her breakneck pace, and the two spar intensely through breath and gesture. It could have been a reach; it could have been impossible to interpret. But here, an exhale through the nostrils becomes a monologue, a fist clapping on a hand is a diatribe. The actors as a pair had to build, yes—but once the journey was complete, the coupling was immense.
The only aspect of this production that significantly tripped up this writer, however, was (ironically enough) perfect adherence to the complex script. Of course, this was mostly necessary for such an intricate show, but the original story was also firmly placed in London—and along with that came the requisite British slang. Renzo and Harrison spoke in their natural nonregional American accents, but from "telly" to "bloke" to "mum" to references to curries and pubs, we were occasionally thrown off by the actors speaking in a way that cognitively didn't line up.
Renzo and Harrison don't trip over the words, though, and director Lynn Goodwin tells SFR that sticking with the script as it stood and with the actors' voices as they are was a conscious choice. "I didn't have them do accents because I felt that the play can be anywhere. It's a message about humanity, and not about specifically British people," she says. "I didn't feel it had to be set, necessarily, in England."
All things considered, the suspension of disbelief required to get over the American-sounding Marianne and Roland referring to their apartment as a "flat" is small potatoes. There were so few negatives to concentrate on otherwise that this stuck out, and perspective on that is important. Tight delivery, believable chemistry, and a marvelous script buoy whatever we may have picked out about Constellations—a show that, to borrow Roland's words, exhibits an unfailing clarity of purpose.
This Sunday, March 25, the 3 pm performance is followed by a talkback about multiverses with physicist Van Savage of the Santa Fe Institute.
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, March 23-31; 3 pm Sundays March 25 and April 1. $15-$25; discounts available for students.
Adobe Rose Theatre,
1213 Parkway Drive,