What if, as Nick Payne’s 2012 play “Constellations” suggests, the universe exists as not one but many different versions?
In some versions of the universe, there is a show going up this weekend in the Calhoun Cabaret. Irina Gavrilova ’17 directs Zeb Mehring ’19 and Annie Saenger ’19 in said play, “Constellations.”
In those versions of the universe in which this show takes place, we are likely to commend Mehring and Saenger for their work in two extremely demanding roles. Both have to play many subtly different versions of their characters over the course of an unremitting hour and a half. At Wednesday night’s dress rehearsal, Saenger in particular managed to sketch a convincing range within the extremes of her character. Audiences should expect to see more good things as these young actors develop.
The play works on an idea — the quantum multiverse — that is new enough to be interesting, yet familiar enough not to require exposition. The structural manifestation of that thematic idea is simple enough: In a multiverse, all of our choices are acted out in parallel worlds. Therefore, the play shows us scenes from a handful of closely related universes as we follow the story of our two characters’ romance, all the way from meet-cute to imminent death. The central narrative amounts to no more than six or seven conventional scenes. Our progress through the story is fitful, however, because each scene is played over and over again in a series of different “takes.”
“Constellations” never commits to either of its theoretical extremes. On the one hand, there is the baroque exhaustion of possibility: Our two characters repeat a single moment in all possible contexts, to the complete exclusion of forward progression in narrative time. On the other hand, there is the strict adherence to one strand of narrative chronology: posit the existence of a multiverse, then choose a single story that shows a particularly interesting version of the characters’ reactions to that possibility. Instead of either extreme, “Constellations” sticks to a safe middle ground — and in so doing squanders the conceptual potential of its premise. Not only does the primary narrative seem to be an afterthought, but also the various versions of each scene are constrained within a remarkably small realm of possibility.
Nothing bizarre happens. None of the dialogue varies from chatty campus demotic. The maximum allowable weirdness seems to be Saenger’s cold opening about why licking one’s elbows is impossible. The takes that are successful in advancing us along the plot are the takes in which the two characters most closely approximate the social mores of their — and their playwright’s, and our — specific intellectual milieu.
Saenger’s character develops a sort of aphasia over the course of the play. She can’t find the right words, or she knows the word, but none of the letters on the keyboard seem to be the right ones. She stammers. The script stammers. Is this because choosing the right words matters? Perhaps, but we never see the characters choose the right words. The script moves forward when the characters speak as conventionally as possible, using words as social tokens rather than as meaningful entities in themselves.
One could argue that the banality of the script is intentional, that the playwright wants to assert the power of our social surroundings to limit the possibilities of an infinitely vast multiverse to a small region of conventional choices. Choice, of course, deteriorates as a concept when every alternative is acted out simultaneously.
The only choices that matter are the playwright’s: For every scene he shows us, there are infinitely many scenes that turned out differently. His characters are nicer to each other when there’s good news than when there’s bad news. Does circumstance, then, determine personality? Well, no. There are unwritten, but equally real, scenes from the multiverse in which the characters are always nice, or always mean, or mean when things are good and nice when things are bad. We can speak of probabilistic regions — infinities of different sizes — but every branch of an infinitely branching system is itself infinite. Within such a system, even a good playwright is limited in the themes he or she can coherently express. Lurking in the background of every artistic choice is an infinity of alternatives.
Our student actors have done good work, but “Constellations” has not given them the right words.