The opening scene of “Constellations,” the play by British dramatist Nick Payne that had a Broadway production in 2015 with Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal, offers variations of the meet-cute scene, in which fate brings together a pair of unsuspecting lovers for topsy-turvy romantic comedy.
“Constellations,” however, hardly qualifies as a traditional rom-com. The different versions of this first encounter between Marianne (Ginnifer Goodwin), a Cambridge University astrophysicist, and Roland (Allen Leech), a beekeeper, reflect the scientific awareness that the universe is actually a multiverse and that time is a dodgier concept than most of us realize.
This two-actor play, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse under the direction of Giovanna Sardelli, has a method to its dramaturgical madness. Scenes are replayed in revised form to suggest a world that is infinitely larger than our understanding.
As Marianne explains early on to Roland, “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”
This conversation, which takes place in Marianne’s apartment after a few drinks, marks the beginning of an intimate relationship that will be challenged first by mutual insecurity, later by infidelity and finally by the prospect of mortality, after Marianne is diagnosed with a brain tumor that impedes her ability to order her thoughts in language.
Each pivotal moment in Marianne and Roland’s romantic history is retold in a “Rashomon”-style devised by a god with way too much free time. The spinning sets of possibilities render the details of what precisely happened more or less inconsequential. We don’t know, for instance, whether Marianne or Roland was the unfaithful party, only that the relationship was shaken and that their bond somehow survived.
In a letter I came across in Carlo Rovelli’s book “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” Albert Einstein wrote to the family member of a deceased colleague: “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction made between past, present and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion.” Payne’s drama doesn’t simply convey this understanding via Marianne. The play’s atomic structure is founded on such theoretical insight.
The manner of storytelling will no doubt strike some as vexing. To the man compulsively checking his watch next to me, time clearly wasn’t a fiction to be easily dismissed.
What sets the work apart is its emotional accessibility. Experimental playwriting can come across as dryly abstract, catering to indoctrinated theatergoers who get their kicks from language games and puzzling formal exercises.
“Constellations” is a small, unorthodox play zeroing in on those mainstream emotions provoked by love and loss. In New York, the drama came to life largely through Wilson’s searing performance as Marianne, a character caught between the expanse of her knowledge and the limits of her mortal life.
The actors at the Geffen are more mundane in their characterizations than Wilson and Gyllenhaal, whose beard alone lent Roland a kind of celebrity attraction. Goodwin plays up Marianne’s romantic skittishness. If her embarrassed squeals and frequent F-bombs don’t suggest the stereotype of the Cambridge scientist, they do hint at a young woman who spends more time analyzing data than socializing with her peers.
Leech’s Roland, dressed in baggy khakis and a gray vest, is an ordinary bloke whose kindness leaves an extraordinary impression. He knows he’s not in Marianne’s intellectual league, but his uncommon sensitivity bridges the gap, making their story quite moving at the end.
The production, which looks like it had to make do with the most meager of design budgets, lacks visual magic. The staging is supposed to be spare and simple, but its furnishings and effects seem to have been purchased at some thrifty party store.
Sardelli, who directed Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj” at the Geffen and, more recently, Joseph’s “Archduke” at the Mark Taper Forum, lucidly communicates the play’s through line in her staging. The temporal transitions, however, could be more smoothly handled. To signal that we are entering the medical portion of the drama, Goodwin makes a pitiful gesture with her hand that has all the subtlety of a traffic light.
Fortunately, Goodwin and Leech have a lively, recognizable rapport. We might not know exactly which version of events transpired in the collective illusion we scientific ignoramuses call “reality,” but it is easy to believe that in some insignificant nook in the dwarfing multiverse Marianne and Roland’s love continues to live on.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends July 16
Tickets: $32-$90 (subject to change)
Information: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
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