In a program note, director Gary Gisselman describes Nick Payne's Constellations as "a new play whose only stage direction is 'with every change of font there is a change of universe.' And there are sixty changes of font." The show runs about 90 minutes, so do the math.
The program also includes background notes on beekeeping and quantum physics.
I braced myself for a brain-twister, but it turns out that Constellations is easy (or it should that be "Constellations are easy"?) to follow. In each of the 60 different universes, we find ourselves watching a British couple named Marianne (Anna Sundberg) and Roland (Ron Menzel). They're attracted to each other, but what comes of that varies depending on their feelings, their choices, and fate.
The result is a sort of cubist theater, in which a single relationship is examined in dozens of different lights that couldn't simultaneously coexist except through art — and through string theory, if one of the play's conceits is to be taken seriously. Actual physicists (like the character of Marianne) use the idea of a "multiverse" to help understand phenomena like the origins of the universe, but for the average person, what's tantalizing about the concept is the idea that there might be other versions of ourselves who made better choices, or just got luckier.
At its best, Constellations is a subtle and thought-provoking exploration of that idea. Some exchanges between the characters play out two, three, even four times — with slight changes of tone, dialogue, and blocking that lead the takes in significantly different directions. It's a showcase for the actors, who are both very good and have an appropriately prickly chemistry together.
The show's promotional materials prominently feature a New York Times blurb asking, "Who knew that higher physics could be so sexy?" Actually, it's precisely the higher physics that throw a splash of cold water on the proceedings, as Marianne interrupts a hookup to lecture Roland on relativity. Turnabout being fair play, Roland's profession — beekeeping — later gets its own load of allegorical freight.
Constellations is further burdened with a life-threatening development (or, more precisely, many different versions of the same development) that takes the show for a heavy turn. It's clear why Payne did that — this is a play about the Big Picture, after all — but the challenge it presents the characters is very different from what they're dealing with in the show's first half, and it ends up bringing a funny and engaging play to its knees.
For the second show in a row under new artistic director Sarah Rasmussen, the Jungle's stage is used in a way that's as striking as the detailed, hyper-realistic sets the theater was famous for under founding leader Bain Boehlke — but striking in a totally different way. Set designer Kate Sutton-Johnson puts us in an undulating, silvery realm of abstraction, with reflective strings bouncing light throughout the venue. As a representation of "the multiverse" it borders on cheesiness, but it's a setting that accentuates the play's themes, and gives Gisselman room to position his actors in constantly varying physical relationships to each other.
Ultimately, Constellations is a fun and often fascinating show to watch: an entertaining investigation of life, the universe, and everything.