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What if every event in your life exists in other versions with different outcomes in multiple alternate universes? That's the premise of British playwright Nick Payne's Constellations. The 2012 one-act concerns a man and woman who fall in love, fall out of love, and reunite, with many variations over its 75-minute duration. Bartlett Theater's production features a likable, experienced pair of actors in a tightly-paced staging that entertained but didn’t manage the emotional range required to make the variations really work.
Roland, a beekeeper in London, and Marianne, a Cambridge astronomer studying time-space relationships, meet at a barbecue, go out for drinks, and begin a relationship. That basic beginning, as well as what comes after, is told in short, often abruptly changing scenes in which the characters loop back over the same conversations, but with different tones and attitudes. Sometimes they are the exact same conversation and other times they are varied by different pieces of information. When the two first meet, for example, Roland has a girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend, no girlfriend, or is married, depending on the version of the scene. The pair's story is not told chronologically, making some scenes confusing when first witnessed because they refer to events that happen much later. Also, earlier scenes return from time to time as a reminder of how things began.
Payne's use of language is often elegant and frequently humorous. He also manages to make Marianne's explanation about her work in quantum physics clear enough to understand its basis for Payne's alternate-universe scenario. The script is a huge challenge for actors because they play multiple versions of the same characters, switching among those versions in a split second. The actors never leave the stage as they go forward, backward, and sideways in dizzying dozens of shifts.
Jon Parker Douglas and Emily Rieder previously proved their acting talents in Bartlett Theater's engaging 2017 production of Chekhov's The Seagull. On opening night of Constellations, they demonstrated agreeable personalities and confidently executed all the repeated dialogue variations. The London-based story necessitated English accents, which both actors brought off believably with help from dialect coach Rebecca Bossen.
Douglas made one version of Roland an awkward bumbler who would have fit right in to a classic British TV comedy; another version made Roland sullen and needy. Rieder supplied a cheeky wit to one variation of Marianne; another take gave her a defeated vulnerability.
Missing was the depth of emotional connection required to fuel the ups and downs of the relationships and to give real nuance to the feelings unspoken between the lines. Director Chris Woodworth's emphasis on crisp pacing and precise blocking gave the production momentum but left little room for subtle shades of Roland and Marianne's true feelings for each other, especially as the plotlines led to life-changing revelations. Douglas and Rieder made distinctions among the differing versions of their characters, but they achieved more with general mood changes and surface variations in repeated lines than with intrinsic changes from within their characters' psyches. Without that emotional depth, the production felt more like an extended acting exercise.
The production is being staged in one of the movie theaters in Durham's Northgate Stadium 10 cineplex. The small raised platform below the screen is all that is needed to present the play, requiring no additional furnishings or props. Stevan Dupor has placed lighting stands on either side of the stage, adequately allowing for delineation of the scenes through varying washes of color. His projections on the movie screen give a clever visualization of the interconnections among the scenes through hexagons containing varying shots of Roland and Marianne, which gradually connect into a honeycomb. The theater acoustics are not ideal, making some of the dialogue hard to hear when the actors are not facing out front.
The play intrigues with its fragmented format, which forces the audience to collect little puzzle pieces to make several complete pictures of the relationships. It's possible that further performances in the run will bring out more of the necessary emotional investment in the characters. But without it, the play is merely appealing rather than grippingly moving.
Constellations continues through Sunday, March 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.