TAMPA — You aren’t going to see the same production of Jobsite Theater’s Constellations I saw in previews.
In a sense, of course, that’s true of every play. But the idea is hammered home during one like Constellations, a sci-fi-tinged romance about the little decisions that impact our whole lives, Sliding Doors-style. One choice, one look, one turn of a phrase can reset your reality — or even just a night at the theater— on an all-new course.
If that sounds a bit heavy, and you dig it — if you’re the type of person who likes to get high with your mates and go deep on alternate dimensions and parallel universes — then any version of Constellations should satisfy your metaphysical munchies. But if you’re just in it for human connection, there’s plenty to feast on there, too.
Written by British playwright Nick Payne, Constellations is a thinky two-hander about a theoretical cosmologist named Marianne (Georgia Mallory Guy) and an urban beekeper named Roland (Giles Davies), who meet at a barbecue and strike up a relationship.
To say the play details the course of their courtship isn’t really accurate. Rather, it’s a collection of around 50 scenes, including some only seconds long, detailing a handful of meetings and moments between Marianne and Roland. Most are presented multiple times, with multiple outcomes, each divided by spacey effects or static courtesy of Jobsite artistic director David Jenkins, who designed the sound. There isn’t much of a plot, at least not one that matters in the end. It’s a play propelled forward on an idea, not a story, as well as the choices of its stars.
Early on, this lack of a linear plot hamstrings the actors, to a degree. Marianne and Roland are awkward, nervous and tentative with each other. They’re likable enough, but it’s hard to follow how and why they click as lovers, and especially how they reached a point where Roland admits he’s thought about proposing. As a result, a confessional breakup scene reenacted more than a half-dozen times always feels unearned, their dialogue and interplay unnatural.
But remember, again, that we’re not on a bullet train through storyville. At any given point, we’re just watching two humans interact on a single plane of an infinite multiverse. And those two humans, Guy and Davies, are often, if not always, playing slightly different versions of Marianne and Roland — some shy and shrinking, others forceful and confident. It’s never made clear if we’re seeing several timelines woven among one another throughout the play, or each scene is part of its own unique timeline, with its own unique Marianne and Roland. And once you, the armchair physicist in the audience, begin to wrap your brain waves around that, well, then the actors’ performances really start to get fascinating.
Guy starts the play speaking with broad, British gusto, but as the timelines unfold, her delivery feels more personal — she weaves in and out of painful arguments with ease, and develops an infuriating stammer that she plays with convincing frustration. Davies, usually more soft-spoken, makes occasional leaps to casual confidence and brief but violent rage. As the play goes on, with an unavoidable life change injecting new realness into their realities, their relationship feels more believable, even as Guy and Davies keep switching between versions of themselves, warping from one emotional peak or valley to another in the next scene.
So quickly must the actors slingshot between personas that asking them to sustain Payne’s characters’ British accents on top of it all feels a bit like a hat on a hat (although kudos to Guy for nailing the appropriate U.K., long-I pronunciation of “philistine”). Indeed, the most gripping scene of the play is one that’s completely wordless, arriving unexplained, out of nowhere — the farthest-flung alternate dimension we visit, yet the most affecting and theatrically impressive.
Managing and massaging the actors’ tiny but meaningful choices is no small feat by director Summer Bohnenkamp. It’ll be interesting to see, over the course of Constellations’s run, how far she, Guy and Davies are willing to push Payne’s idea that little changes can affect each outcome in unexpected ways.
There are more than a dozen more performances still to come between now and Aug. 4, which means around 600 possible versions of Marianne and Roland could take the stage at some point. Some will mirror the ones I saw the other night. Hopefully, the actors will continue making new decisions to push Marianne and Roland even further into the emotional cosmos.
If they do, the possibilities for Constellations feel endless.
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.
If you go
Runs through Aug. 4. $34.50 and up. Shimberg Playouse at the David A Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. jobsitetheater.org.