It’s actor Kristin Devine’s stellar performance – handily supported by co-star Kevin Dejesus-Jones – that absolutely mesmerizes one throughout “Constellations,” an oddly-structured play by Nick Payne, running through Aug. 17, at the Mayfair Theater in Northeast Philadelphia.
The tight, two-person drama illustrates the notion of parallel universes by dissecting a couple’s romantic relationship into very brief snippets of authentic-sounding conversation that are repeated several times.
Yet, using virtually the same dialogue, each repetition yields a somewhat different impression or outcome, as the actors skillfully project slight variations in mood, intent, personality, or context.
Despite its theoretical premise Payne’s play is not about science, but rather the trajectory of a human relationship. While frequently amusing, and sometimes thought-provoking, it does little more than suggest the existence of parallel universes.
It puts forth the argument that we must believe they exist in order to feel we have the freedom to make choices – for which there exists no real scientific evidence. But that notion is never directly debated or explored.
Playing Marianne, a Cambridge University cosmologist, with her rubbery face, adoption of an appealing British accent, and astonishing command of dispositional subtleties, Devine proves infinitely interesting. Even as she re-states the same lines of text over and over, we feel as though we’re hearing something new each time.
As Marianne’s love interest, a beekeeper named Roland, Dejesus-Jones (Devine’s real-life fiancé) brings less variety to his reiterations, but digs deep emotionally. In the play’s superbly performed climactic scene, as the failing Marianne is forced to communicate through sign language, it’s Dejesus-Jones’s acting that invokes our tears.
The Herculean challenges this play presents for its actors are made no easier by the slick pace set by director Adam Maggio. Not only do the two performers never leave the stage throughout the duration of the 75-minute drama, but the time they are given to transition – to shift gears physically, mentally, and psychologically between the often non-chronological episodes – averages about five seconds.
They are aided immeasurably, however, by sound designer Daniel Ison who fills those transitional moments evocatively, with electronic beeps, booms, screeches and rumbles that eerily punctuate the proceedings.
John Cambridge’s stark lighting and Zachary Phaneuf’s simple set design – clusters of geometric platforms arranged on either side of a galaxy painted on the black floor – provide suitably neutral environs for the play’s array of altering interchanges.
Performing in a tiny black-box theater, with rows of audience members seated facing each other on either side of the stage space, the actors have very little room in which to work and are oftentimes just inches away from viewers.
Kudos to Morrisville residents Devine and Dejesus-Jones – whose Quantum Theatre Group also co-produced the show in association with Wings of Paper – for proffering such a transporting interpretation of this difficult-to-do play.