Theater review: Constellations
By Perry Tannenbaum
You might say the stars have aligned. Last week, reviewing Fly by Night at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, I wrote that the writing team of that musical was playing with the idea that everything that has ever happened was pre-ordained from the moment that the Big Bang birthed the star stuff we are made of. Well, now Nick Payne’s Constellations has opened at the Warehouse PAC in Cornelius, and one of its two protagonists is a Cambridge University cosmologist. At one point, she floats that same idea to her beau.
But Payne is playing differently, more elaborately, with Marianne and Roland, leaning on string theory to present their love story with multiple beginnings and middles, concluding with one last U-turn and never really giving us an ending. Or a simple way to understand what we have witnessed. We could be glimpsing multiple outcomes playing out in multiple universes. But despite the fancy quantum theory, every scene bears a kinship with the “Sure Thing” skit from David Ives’s All in the Timing, where another man and woman play out all the things that can go wrong on a first encounter before the couple clicks.
In this 80-minute show, Payne takes us beyond the first meeting to moving in together, possible infidelities, a breakup, reunion and marriage, and a possible cancer diagnosis. You could say they’ve shared a lifetime as their relationship unfolds in echoing and overlapping vignettes. Yet along the way, Marianne sends out the idea that time doesn’t really exist, loosing the possibility that everything happens simultaneously – and dealing hammer blows to the vaunted dating of the Big Bang (and the title of Ives’s potpourri).
Luckily, such nonsense is refuted by the play itself, which starts out with seeming frivolity as Roland repeatedly misfires with Marianne but grows more and more serious as their shared history develops – whatever we might imagine that to be, since each stage has many variants. Credit director Marla Brown’s finely gauged pacing and her stars, Cynthia Farbman Harris and Michael Harris, for making sure this Constellations evolves so gracefully from cute triviality to profundity.
Often over-the-top and old fashioned when he first turned up in Moving Poets and CAST productions – or more recently as the heavy in Arsenic and Old Lace at Theatre Charlotte – Michael proves once again at the Warehouse (where he shone in Stones in His Pockets four years ago) that he can do intimate and natural just as effectively. Here he’s subdued and awkward enough for us to believe he truly is a humble countrified beekeeper, and the midlife aspects that he brings to Roland texturize his romance rather than twisting it askew.
Married offstage as well as on, the Harrises have obviously benefited from the extra rehearsal time that their protracted proximity enables. Not a single line was bobbled last Saturday night as rain pelted the building. Even in radically different takes of the same scene, Michael and Cynthia managed the paradoxical feat of remaining the same people even if they were different from one blackout to the next. No, there weren’t multiple continuities in their multiple universes, but previous versions of the Roland-Marianne romance couldn’t be altogether discarded as we moved along.
The other benefit of the marriage is Michael’s Brit upbringing, obviously rubbing off onto Cynthia with a very convincing accent. Not a stranger to cold, cocksure roles, Cynthia adroitly mixes the intellectual superiority of a Cambridge cosmologist with Marianne’s vulnerabilities, both in her health and sociability. So there’s rich complexity when Marianne fends Roland off, when she yields to him, and when she drifts into dependency.
Individually, I don’t think either of the Harrises has been better onstage. Together, they’re quite special in a fascinating piece.