Constellations: “Psst, I am both kissing and not kissing you.” Alan Alabastro

Scenic designer L.B. Morse sets Constellations in what looks like a blue Rothko painting. With the exception of one gorgeous, hyper-real moment in the play where the stage shape-shifts into a spectacle I won't describe here for fear of ruining everything, all there is to look at onstage is Roland and Marianne (Max Gordon Moore and Alexandra Tavares, respectively) carrying out their romantic relationship on a wooden platform that seems to hover in the blue abstraction. The spareness of the stage puts a ton of pressure on the script and the acting, both of which hold up in this quiet but engaging British drama.

Playwright Nick Payne uses the idea of the multiverse to structure the X meets Y story. (Roland is a dowdy but charming beekeeper; Marianne is a sharp, quietly goofy cosmologist who studies the cosmic microwave background. They meet at a barbecue.) I know you know the multiverse theory, but, just in case you don't, Marianne beautifully describes it as a reality in which "everything you've ever and never done exists in a vast ensemble of universes." To embody this idea, the actors play out scenes from all the possible worlds in quick succession. Right at the beginning of the play, for instance, Roland immediately decline's Marianne's advances. Then a lightsaber sound slices into the air above the audience, and Marianne tries again but with a slightly different tack. Roland very Englishly (oh, I, um, hm, uh, let's see...) declines her advances again. Then there's another lightsaber sound, and he accepts.

These temporal stutters force the actors to flicker between emotions that differ wildly and also only slightly. At one point, Moore swings from rage to flirtation within 10 seconds, and yet his skill is such that each emotion projected a true depth of feeling. In another moment, Tavares quickly reads a single line in four cascadingly sad tones—bummed, disappointed, self-pitying, totally dejected—a feat she achieves with precision. Throughout the show, I kept fighting back the urge to hold up a placard with a "10" on it.

From the moment Marianne and Roland meet, the story jumps around in space-time. I imagine Payne standing godlike before a portfolio of universes, selecting only the ones that feature the couple bumping into each other, and then weaving together a narrative of their nearly infinite encounters. Except "narrative" in this case is an unstable concept. In Constellations, the audience is reading a choose-your-own-adventure book from front to back. Several possible narratives emerge within the context of the play's universe, but none are valued as the "correct" one—they are just possible threads to follow. This nonlinear structure works against the X-meets-Y setup. Will the couple get together in the end? Does love "win"? Impossible to say in a universe where everything is simultaneously happening but also not happening.

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Doing away with that plot-based expectation of heartbreak or heartmelt opens up other, wilder lines of thinking. From the perspective of theater: Since we're so used to narratives where X and Y meet and either stay together forever or die in a bloodbath, you sort of unconsciously root for one narrative, despite the fact that all narratives are playing out at once. The tension between the result you're rooting for and the structure of the play forces you to sublimate the other narratives as metaphors for the many vicissitudes of a romantic relationship. Roland's infidelity in one universe, for instance, would have to function as a metaphor for pain he caused in the universe where he doesn't "actually" commit the infidelity. In this way, Payne presents love as the best and worst of all possible worlds.

From the pop-sci perspective: If everything is happening and not happening at once, and if the present is only a function of our position in space-time, then it's no wonder why many of us feel as if we live in the past or the future despite also having the feeling of being one person walking around and looking at stuff in the present. Though we may be enthralled by our memories and projections, we remain a member of the audience watching a performance unfolding in time. Constellations accounts for this phenomenon by positing the present as a site where we can become intimate with the unknown, a state dramatically intensified by love.