by John Stoltenberg


We enter a mini coliseum and take our seats on cushions of many colors on one of several rows of blue benches encircling the blank stage. The dim lighting feels hallowed; the music, reverential. There are no back rests—perhaps we are not expected to get too comfortable? Guess not. For though we do not know it yet, we are about to become spectators at an experimental relationship laboratory wherein the courtship and mating behaviors of a particular millennial man and woman will be dissected—sliced, diced, examined, and reexamined—under the unsentimental glare of a geometric tangle of florescent lighting tubes.

Experimental is the operative word in this operating theater, for British Playwright Nick Payne’s quirky script keeps trying out the same relationship moments and events different ways with different inflections and different outcomes.

Two phenomenal actors give the experiment their all. Lily Balantincz plays Marianne, a physicist, and Tom Patterson plays Roland, a beekeeper. In 50 discrete scenes they enact with split-second transitions and instant recall of ever shifting emotions the story of a young couple that isn’t exactly a story; it’s more like  fractured narrative fragments whose  continuity, such as it is, is for us to infer, or maybe make up, for Payne’s play plays with us even as these two astonishing players play it.

We get that Marianne and Roland meet cute; we see multiple iterations of that. We get that they fall in love and live together sweetly then go through rather ordinary crises of sexual unfaithfulness; we see multiple iterations of that (sometimes she’s having the affair; sometimes he is; there’s delightful gender switching in the discrepant plot bits). Finally we get that Marianne and Roland’s relationship is tragically tested by the playwright’s injection of a terminal illness. Now what? Abruptly this couple, together with the conventionality of their coupling, are thrown for an interesting and perhaps emotionally engaging loop. But cue the multiple iterations lest our sympathies and empathies have too much to work with.

Constellations comes to Studio’s Stage 4 black-box lab space in a first-rate production given precisely paced direction by Artistic Director David Muse, an aptly unnerving sound design by Ryan Rumery, a dramatically discombobulating light design by Michael Lincoln, and the aforementioned shrewdly sterile set by Debra Booth. Couldn’t be better.

Constellations also comes with a dossier of adulation for its writing—in particular for its central conceptual conceit and structure justification, which is that “in the quantum multiverse,” as Marianne tells Roland, “every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” I can see why Muse might have thought this script would click as have Studio’s other recent imports by innovative Brits. Mike Bartlett’s Cock and Clare Lizzimore’s Animal, for instance, shared a fizzy, brittle wit laced with human anguish in extremis that left audiences stirred and shaken. And certainly Constellations offers two technically challenging roles that if done right would be  certain to showcase virtuosity—exactly as can be seen on stage right now.

And make no mistake, Lily Balantincz’s and Tom Patterson’s fine-tuned, quicksilver, insta-truth-telling performances make Studio Theatre’s Constellations a unique must-see. Watching the two of them serve and volley, thrust and parry, is like watching two ace players in the sport of love at the peak of their game.

The script itself, however, is more of a stunt than a stunner. It teases us, taunts us, to take from it some semblance of emotional relational substance, some sustainable moments of feeling with these two people’s feelings. After skimming along the surface for two thirds of its length, it seems about to submerge us—when we learn of the terminal illness—in the tough stuff of health and sickness, love and loss, and it promises to do so within an original form that will yield life insights of the sort great theater often offers. But that expectation of this playscript would be misplaced. Any insights tucked inside Constellations are splinters and shards; they never coalesce.

Turns out it’s not easy to have your novelty and your gravitas too.

Running Time: One hour 20 minutes, without intermission.

Constellations plays through March 6, 2016 at Studio Theatre’s Stage 4 – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.