Fortunately for Nick Payne, a celebrated young British playwright, that question is unlikely to cost him any sleep. “Constellations,” his two-character 70-minute romantic drama shot through with quantum physics, is a smashing success. High-profile premieres in London and New York were followed by a UK tour and productions in regional theaters across the U.S., Canada and Australia.
Now Eric Rosen, Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, has staged Payne’s smart one-act at Copaken Stage with two capable actors and elegant support from a gifted design team.
This is less a play about science than it is a bittersweet romance with flashes of romcom humor and a sad turn that threatens to capsize the show in a sentimental lagoon. But this is, without question, a play like no other. Payne appears to be an original. In the world of theater, that is depressingly rare.
The protagonists are Marianne (Bree Elrod), a cosmologist who spends her days in-putting theoretical data and writing papers on the possible existence of multiple universes extending into infinity, and Roland (Tuc Watkins), a beekeeper.
The notion driving the play is that endless copies of ourselves exist in parallel universes, where we meet, fall in love and break up in countless ways, from sustained joy to bitter divorce. Payne wrote that when he began reading about the multiverse theory he saw a way to create a play in response to his father’s death. His dad might have passed away in this universe, but not necessarily in another. In that way, the idea is comforting — until you begin considering the possible negative scenarios that might be unfolding in the other universes as well.
Payne’s approach is to show us successive variations on key moments in the relationship between Marianne and Roland. They meet at a garden party and engage in flirtatious chit-chat but the details change from one version to the next. They go out to dinner and Roland stays the night in one world, but not in another. In one version they barely talk. Each of them breaks trust and casts the other as a betrayed lover. In this way Payne examines all the dids and didn’ts, should’ves and could’ves, what-ifs and why-nots that make up the fabric of our lives.
“Constellations” is a conceptual play imbued with certain ingredients to give it mass appeal. Sometimes the humor is too broad. Sometimes the emotions are too facile. The pathos late in the play threatens to undermine the intellectual integrity in the early going.
Elrod invests the material with keen comedic instincts in the light moments and palpable dramatic weight when the story grows dark. You can see Elrod working hard. But she’s full of vitality and strength and engages the audience.
Watkins exhibits a relaxed, personable performing style. But his low-intensity performance is almost invisible in key moments. Even so, Watkins and Elrod seem to enjoy playing off each other.
James Sherwood’s set is an exceptional piece of work . He places the actors in a circular playing area that includes a rotating turntable. He uses shelves, books, objects and lamps that spiral upward suggesting either molecular or celestial patterns. Grant Wilcoxen’s subtle and variable lighting helps delineate the dozens of short scenes and mood shifts. Alison Heryer’s costumes are simple but effective. And sound designer Andre Pluess contributes moments of evocative music.
Bottom line: This is a play that makes you think. Its imperfections are in plain sight, but like good science fiction it prompts you contemplate questions that rarely find their way to the stage.
“Constellations” runs through April 2 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut. Call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.