The big, big problem with Curious Theatre Company’s Denver premiere of Nick Payne’s Constellations is the two cast members’ English accents, which were so bad that I had trouble focusing on the dialogue or the otherwise perfectly decent acting until around thirty minutes in — and the play only runs seventy. This was infuriating, since Constellations received rave reviews in both London and New York, Payne has been almost universally praised as the theater world’s next wunderkind, and the production is directed by Christy Montour-Larson, whose work I’ve admired for years. This isn’t just nitpicking: A bad accent can be a real barrier, almost as strong as a physical one, to expressiveness and meaning, and Payne’s incisive and often elliptical script requires attention.
Constellations tells the story of a love affair between a beekeeper and a brilliant physics professor, and tells it in multiple dimensions. Payne’s inspiration is string theory, which arose in the early 1970s as an attempt to bridge an apparent major contradiction in physics; among other things, it posits multiple universes. The reasoning is too complicated for most of us non-physicists to unravel, and since string theory is abstract and can’t really be proved, it easily moves into the realm of philosophy. Or metaphor. People have been speculating about the meaning of time and the way we perceive it forever. Writers, particularly science-fiction writers, love the topic. Way back in the 1930s, J. B. Priestley wrote a series of plays about time that touched on the idea of parallel universes, and the concept is the basis of the recent musical If/Then, as well as the 1998 film Sliding Doors.
You can see why it fascinates. Most of us periodically wonder what would have happened if we had made a different choice at a specific moment. What if we hadn’t been enthralled by that particular subject in high school, had married someone else, lived in a foreign country, or even picked up a different book on a rainy afternoon? But Constellations doesn’t just deal with major forks in the road. It takes up the more intricate and diffuse notion that every action, thought, decision has a parallel existence — including actions we haven’t taken and thoughts we never entertained. There are also questions about time’s arrow, the idea that time moves only forward. “The basic laws of physics...don’t have a past and a present,” Marianne, played by Kelsey Didion, tells Roland, played by Brett Aune, in Constellations. “Time is irrelevant at the level of atoms and molecules. It’s symmetrical.”
She then adds, “We have all the time we’ve always had.”
The two of them meet at a barbecue. Perhaps a party. Or they don’t meet. He’s uninterested in her theories; he’s fascinated by them. They’re not attracted to each other, or one of them isn’t interested while the other is. He loves her and she doesn’t love him. He loves her and she does love him. Both, separately, are unfaithful. The theme of mortality threads through the evening, expressed in fragments and broken sentences that cohere and make sense only late in the play.
All of this is accomplished in scenes of varying lengths, played out in front of a backdrop of flowing night-sky images, and between which the protagonists move to different places on the stage, together or apart. It’s possible that the ways they walk — whether they’re crossing in a straight line or on a diagonal, how physically close they are to each other — are all significant and have been carefully worked out by director and actors, though I couldn’t be sure of that. The dialogue is vibrating and complex, and you’d really like to take the sentences into your hands for a closer look, to try to plumb the silences between the words.
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Curious is known for challenging and out-of-the-ordinary work — and all of this is challenging for the audience — but there’s also a kind of simplicity and sweetness to Constellations. The play treads lightly and is fun to watch; it also becomes more and more absorbing as the evening progresses.
And the accents become less intrusive.
Constellations, presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 15, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.