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The parallel worlds of Nick Payne’s Constellations share a narrow view

Cara Ricketts and Graham Cuthbertson on stage in Constellations.

Cylla von Tiedemann

2 out of 4 stars

Title
Constellations
Written by
Nick Payne
Genre
Play
Directed by
Peter Hinton
Actors
Graham Cuthbertson, Cara Ricketts
Company
Canadian Stage
City
Toronto
Year
2016
Runs Until
Sunday, November 27, 2016

I'll take a single, well-drawn, original world over 100 underwritten, overfamiliar ones any day.

Constellations is the latest play to play with the idea of parallel universes – and yet display a rather blinkered and bourgeois view of precisely what is possible among human beings.

Young British playwright Nick Payne imagines many different encounters between a beekeeper named Roland and a Cambridge physicist named Marianne in this West End hit .

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In the production directed by Peter Hinton, currently at Canadian Stage after a stint at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal, the two characters are played in their myriad forms by a pair of consummately charming actors, Graham Cuthbertson and Cara Ricketts.

With only two performers (plus an onstage cellist Hinton has added in, but who keeps to a corner), Roland and Marianne's romantic possibilities play out in sequence, rather than in parallel. And so, Constellations begins with Roland and Marianne meeting at a barbecue over and over: In one short scene, Roland is married; in the next, he is just out of a serious relationship; in the next, Marianne manages to grab his attention; and, in the next, she manages to hold it – and they arrange to meet for a drink.

That's how the rest of Constellations plays out – and, initially, there is a certain amount of fun to be had in watching Cuthbertson and Ricketts reset and repeat, heading toward different outcomes. Very quickly, however, Payne's play starts to feel like an acting exercise – with Cuthbertson and Ricketts simply cycling through different intentions and reactions, and little for an audience to hang on to.

This is especially the case because Constellations rarely moves to any situation or outcome you wouldn't find in your garden-variety romantic comedy. After the meet-cute moment at a barbecue, there's a myriad of endings of first dates. Then, we jump forward to a bevy of breakups – all of which are fuelled by an affair on one side or the other. The idea that a couple might simply work through infidelity, or any problem, is too complex for any of Payne's imaginings.

Naturally, of course, there's a reunion (and various thwarted reunions) before Constellations, having depicted two characters in a way that makes it impossible to connect on an emotional level, tries to steer toward an end designed to pull at the heartstrings. It couldn't get hold of mine. Although I've seen too many plays in recent years where brainy people develop some sort of brain disease – so, if there is a universe where I'd find this moving rather than a cheap cliché, I'm afraid it's not this one.

Hinton and set designer Michael Gianfrancesco do a better job of pulling out the ideas in the play. They place the actors on a round platform, inside a big, shiny black box, where the walls show us multiple, shadowy reflection of the actors.

There's a bit of scientific jibber-jabber about a theory of everything that would unite general relativity with quantum field theory, the science of the big with the science of the small – and Hinton's production and Gianfrancesco's design successfully manage to suggest both.

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I'm not sure it is the best possible production to pull out what's actually in Payne's script, however – which, in its snippety scenes, has the flavour of a second-rate Hugh Grant vehicle, with self-conscious British characters always blurting out things that would be considered embarrassing only in the dullest of company, then berating themselves for it.

Cuthbertson and Ricketts connect much more completely with this superficial material when they are physically close – and actually moving their own bodies in relation to one another. A series of scenes staged at the centre of the platform, where Roland proposes to Marianne, is funny in the extreme – and made me wonder if maybe the play might not work a lot better in a much smaller theatre.

It seems like a mediocre play taking up too much space here, though I know there is an audience that goes mad for plays ostensibly about physics, especially if they're British. But I'll take a work of art that shows us complex humans over one that name-drops complex ideas any day.

Ultimately, Constellations only made me think about all the possible worlds where Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn might have programmed a similar but smarter script in this slot for Hinton to sink his teeth into. John Mighton's weirder, more imaginative 1990 play about romance in parallel universes, Possible Worlds? Or, if you wanted to keep the combo of beekeepers, Cambridge and physics, how about Charlotte Jones's 2001 play Humble Boy? Or if the crowds want string theory and string musicians, how about Hannah Moscovitch's recent hit, Infinity?

Constellations continues until Nov. 27 (canadianstage.com).

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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