Constellations

★★★½ 

Through Sunday, Mar. 24

Northgate Stadium 10, Durham 

Stage directions are usually the least interesting part of a script, but the one at the start of Nick Payne’s thought experiment, Constellations, grabs your attention. It says that each line between passages of dialogue “indicates a change in universe.” That’s because Payne’s pensive drama about the sum of a series of relationships between two people—rough-edged beekeeper Roland (Jon Parker Douglas) and young Cambridge scientist Marianne (Emily Rieder)—illustrates a facet of quantum mechanics, which Marianne studies. 

String theory posits that each choice we make necessitates iterations of all the other possible choices in a potentially infinite set of parallel universes called the multiverse. Thus, Marianne’s decision to awkwardly chat up a random stranger at a party grounds out, not once but repeatedly, in the cosmic resets indicated by designer Stevan Dupor’s lackluster portable lights. In sequential alternative worlds, Roland is not interested, because he’s just left a relationship, or he’s seeing someone, or he’s waiting for his wife to bring back a beer. But during these universal do-overs, subtle variations in Marianne’s body language, the ways she tells the same joke, and Roland’s demeanor imply that she’s not exactly the same woman, expressing interest while cracking wise, and he’s not the same man who finally accepts her offer. 

After their first date ends in outcomes that range from sensual to endearingly awkward to abusive, the relationship deepens as Payne and director Chris Woodworth keep flipping—sometimes, too briskly—through the quantum Rolodex. The episodic scenes that carry the action forward, backward, and sideways aren’t always long enough for director and actors to fully convey the differences among the couple’s various realities. 

Plus, there’s the problem of focus. After producing The Flick at Northgate’s movie theater last fall, Bartlett Theater returned to that venue for Constellations only after a last-minute logistics snag kept them from staging it at UNC’s Morehead Planetarium. At Northgate, the actors are placed on an empty stage, without set pieces or props, beneath a large movie screen on which digitally animated pre-show credits and mid-show graphics appear. These distract and dislodge us from the world of the performance instead of reinforcing it. 

Still, the nimble actors and Payne’s script move us, in verbal and non-verbal passages, as a relationship that begins with an infinite set of possibilities narrows to a small and poignant handful of outcomes. As it does, a postmodern multiverse articulates one of the oldest human regrets in a longer look down all those roads not taken.

arts@indyweek.com