Constellations
Christian Coulson and Victoria Frings. Photo by Jim Cox.

Constellations

By Nick Payne
Directed by Richard Seer
The Old Globe San Diego
April 9 to May 8, 2016

From Star Trek to Sliders, parallel universes have been a science fiction go-to for years and have the advantage of being based on actual science. When physicists study the quantum realm – think atoms and smaller – they sometimes wonder whether we live in a single universe or an infinite series of universes – a multiverse, in which everything that could happen, does happen. It’s a great concept to ponder over a few drinks or a nice device to explore character.

In “Constellations”, we get to watch cross-universe versions of Roland (Christian Coulson) and Marianne (Victoria Frings). They meet at a barbecue and – in some instances – hit it off great. The play discards the universes where they don’t become a couple, following the relationship to a variety of conclusions.

The possibilities are intriguing and in some ways quite encouraging. Many of us have tried talking to a potential love interest, only to be rebuffed or have the conversation go south. But in the multiverse, we all get to succeed in at least one reality.

The Globe does a fine job of delineating scenes, whisking us from one universe to another with flashing lights and sci fi sounds reminiscent of vintage Dr. Who. We never lose track of this awkward relationship.

Payne’s script grabs at that awkwardness with both hands. Marianne is a physicist – specializing in quantum theory, natch – and Coulson is a beekeeper. They are both odd but affable and a little uncomfortable around each other. We get to see a lot of that.

The problem with the multiverse is that it gets repetitive. Roland might read a speech standing still in one universe and pacing manically in another. The sequence has changed, but the speech remains the same.

That might be director Seer’s central challenge in “Constellations”: how to make repetitive material seem fresh. He and the cast succeed at times. Frings is particularly good at remaking their awkward banter from scene to scene.

This can be a fascinating way to expose character, and in some ways it’s like watching an actor’s workshop as the two try to insert dramatic variation between nearly identical moments. A line can be delivered with anger, coyness, humor, indifference, etc.

On the other hand, it’s hard to build an entire show on minute changes in characterization. Like the relationship it’s modeling, “Constellations” has maximum energy in the beginning – when love is new – but eventually gets bogged down in the tedious work of relationship maintenance.

And therein lies the breakdown. “Constellations” focuses microscopically on the problems of two little people in this crazy world. But despite the variations in language between scenes, the facts of these characters remain the same – she is still a physicist; he is still a beekeeper. The beauty of the multiverse is anything can happen, but Payne’s script seems artificially constricted. The results may change, but the characters do not.

San Diego ,
Josh Baxt has an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and writes for a local nonprofit. His play, Like a War, was produced for the annual Fritz litz. Josh's short fiction has been published in the anthologies Sunshine Noir and Hunger and Thirst, as well as the journal City Works.