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A CurtainUp Review

"Every choice, every decision you've ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes."
— Marianne a cosmologist at a British university tells Roland a beekeeper in one of the multiple variations of scenes from their love story. As he says in one of their parallel universal interchanges, "This is genuinely turning me on."
Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson (Photo: Joan Marcus
Unlike our London critic I didn't have a chance to see Nick Payne's Constellations in both its original production in a small theater in the round setting as well as its transfer to a larger proscenium production in the West End. Given its 2012 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play and universal raves for its clever merger of traditional romance with highbrow talk about quantum mechanics and relativity, this two-hander has moved right into one of Broadway's large proscenium houses, Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

To insure a New York repeat of the play's London success, the director Michael Longhurst and his incredibly effective design team are again on board to see that the constant flow of scenes of replays of their comings and goings in parallel universes is made clear (Don't even try to keep count!). But the cosmologist Marianne and the beekeeper Roland are now played by Jake Gylenhaal and Ruth Wilson, thespians with big and small screen ticket selling star credentials. (His award-winning history includes Brokeback Mountain and Night Crawler; the British Wilson has made her mark with American audiences in the Golden Globe winning TV series The Affair). Gyllenhaal box offic magnetism was evident when he made his 2012 New York stage debut off-Broadway in If There is I Haven't Found it (also written by Payne and directed by Longhurst) the street outside the theater were packed with a crowd of fans, something generally usual only on Broadway.

Most New York critics have already joined their London counterparts' raves. Whether or not you leave the theater equally convinced that this is the most original and stimulating play you've seen in years, there's no question that Longhurst and company have indeed given Payne's play a stunning, fast-moving production. And while the British actors were undoubtedly excellent (Rafe Spall was a scene stealing presence in the 2013 revival of Betrayal ), Gyllenhaal and Wilson are beyond excellent.

These dynamic co-stars tap into the nuances of their constant character changes and deliver Payne's text with clarity and terrifically agile mood defining body language. They stand, sit, embrace and in a couple of these mini-scenes even dance. Best of all, there's enormous chemistry in their funny as well as heart-tugging interaction. They may not improve your understanding of theoretical physics or the fine points of beekeeping but they sure make all this high flown talk sexy — and thanks to the clever use of the balloons that constitute the only scenic props and the smart lighting and sound effects, all those universe-shifting dramatic snippets are easy and interesting to follow.

As for the play itself, it's refreshing to see a drama with intellectually stimulating dialogue that's first and foremost an emotionally potent and easy to identify with story. However, even though I didn't see the original in-the-round small theater production, I can see why the the play's inventive staging is even more dramatic in a larger theater with a proscenium stage. The impact of the way those rising and falling balloons light onto a "new universe" with each new conversation makes for visual theater at its most dynamic. But it also distances all but those sitting in the front third of the orchestra from the actors. Consequently, if you count the balcony, more than two-thirds of the audience of the current production are likely to come away appreciating it more as an exercise for actors to display their ability to devise new ways to present essentially similar situations in different and engaging ways.

Wilson has certainly made the most of her provocative conversation opener: "Do you know why it's impossible to lick the tips of your elbows?" She illustrates this severally voiced question with attempts to do so. And since, according to Marianne, everyone being able to actually lick the tip of their elbows might enable them to live forever, you're likely to go home and give that elbow licking improbablity a try.

For our London critic's double review go here
For a glimpse of what to expect, here's a link to a YouTube Teaser Video
And to check out our page with links to plays with science or math backgrounds go here

Constellations by Nick Payne
Directed by Michael Longhurst
Starring: Ruth Wilson and Jake Guilenhaal
Scenic and Costume Design: Tom Scutt
Lighting: Lee Curran
Sound: David McSeveney Original Music: Simon Slater
Movement Director: Lucy Cullingford
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: Peter Wolf
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club with The Royal Court Theatre at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street 212-239-6200
From 12/16/14; opening 1/13/15;closing 3/15/15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 15th press performance
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