ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A friend’s teenage daughter said to me after “Constellations” – the Nick Payne drama currently playing at Desert Rose Playhouse – “I didn’t understand it, but it had something to do with bees.” The birds and the bees would be more accurate.
Beekeeper Roland meets Marianne, a theoretical physicist, at a barbecue, and a sexual liaison ensues. Or does it? Payne’s play imagines the finite number of interpersonal constellations that potentially exist in the meeting of two people who are attracted to each other. In fact, the play suggests that these many possibilities may all actually exist simultaneously in multiple universes. It’s certainly a clever conceit and extremely challenging for the actors, who essentially play the same few scenes over and over again with minor or major variations.
“Constellations” is a conflation of the time-tested romantic formula of boy meets girl (spun out in endless ways) and the heady scientific concept of “the multiverse.” Marianne says to Roland, “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”
Stage directions in the printed text indicate where there is a change in the universe, at which points the actors do the scene again in a different manner. Sometimes Roland is married, sometimes he has a girlfriend, but usually he is single. Roland and Marianne get together, sort of, in most scenarios, and their relationship proceeds in fits and starts all the way to its tragic conclusion, although nothing is ever concluded in a vast ensemble of multiverses where things eternally recur.
The actors do a nice job replaying the scenes, especially Karen Byers, who as Marianne has the additional challenge of dramatizing someone whose mortal illness first destroys the linguistic control center in the frontal lobe of her brain.
As Roland, Christopher Chase conveys his character’s shyness and insecurities with believability and conviction.
There is not much to fault with the Desert Rose production, although I do question the wisdom of director Michael Montroy’s decision to underscore the entire production with 20- to 30-second clips of pop songs.
“Constellations” premiered in London in 2012 and in New York in 2014 and received rave reviews, but I do not care for the play as much as most of the critics who reviewed the original productions. Perhaps I simply do not find the multiverse theory very compelling. Or perhaps I prefer a world in which every choice matters and is imbued with real consequence.
Payne uses the following quote as an epigraph to the printed play: “Why should the universe have a purpose … there is a considerable grandeur, I think, in the presence of our spectacularly majestic universe just hanging there, wholly without purpose.” That’s a rather grand summation of the nihilism of the present age. It seems that ever since Nietzsche famously declared that God is dead, clever people have been scrambling for alternative cosmological theories. However, as one writer phrased the question, “What’s more likely: a potentially infinite number of useless parallel universes, or one perfectly ordinary God?”
“Constellations” is playing through Dec. 17 at Desert Rose Playhouse, 6921 Montgomery NE. Go to desertroseplayhouse.net or call 563-0316 for reservations.