In my ongoing to commitment to avoiding romantic comedies, I missed the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors. But lately I've been hearing a lot about the nineteen-year-old film, mostly because any time I sketch out the plot of Nick Payne's physics 'n' bees-inspired drama Constellations to someone, they immediately ask "You mean like in Sliding Doors?" People apparently love Sliding Doors.
But this is perhaps unfair to Payne's play, which is built upon the framework of the multiverse. In contemporary theoretical physics (and the classic British science-fantasy of author Michael Moorcock), there are multiple universes that co-exist simultaneously, and in them, multiple versions of all of us make all possible decisions and experience all possible outcomes.
Or, as Constellations' theoretical physicist Marianne (Ellen Adair) puts it, "Everything you've ever and never done" is happening right now across the multiverse. It’s reassuring somehow. (Surely in one of them I've written a more concise and enjoyable review.)
And so several different versions of Marianne meet Roland (Eric Gilde) at a party and, after unsuccessful attempts in various other dimensions of the multiverse, hits it off with one of him. They embark on a romance that fails because of her infidelity, or his infidelity; there is or isn't a renewed partnership, and in some of them Marianne develops a terminal disease, while in others they live happily ever after.
It sounds more perplexing than it ends up being in Constellations, which opened at the Rep last weekend, mostly because Marianne explains the multiverse to Roland (and us) early in the play, and because both Adair and Gilde subtly change their characters' mannerisms as they cycle through each possibility. The mild-mannered Roland we've grown accustomed to wheels on Marianne when she admits her affair and fires off a hard slap — you see it coming from the set of his feet and shoulders, so atypical of "our" Roland. Marianne is coy in one dimension, quietly defeated in another, and in yet another, terrified of admitting she's cheated, her thumb spasmodically picking at the other fingers in the space before she comes clean.
Watching all these possibilities play out one after another four or five times in a row can be tiresome, even though Payne wisely excises some of the dialogue each go-round; the variations are so small sometimes as to appear insignificant.
Also unexpectedly insignificant is Roland's background. According to the program, Payne made Roland an urban beekeeper because of a documentary he saw about beekeepers. Yet other than at the opening party and his funny cycle of marriage proposals, Roland's beekeeping doesn't factor in much to his decision-making or motivations. Marianne's research provides both Constellations' framework and explanation, but Roland's bees remain a footnote.
Interestingly, in our current universe male drone bees are all clones — and Roland's character is remarkably unchanged throughout the play, with only a few noted exceptions. Perhaps this is nit-picking (surely I’m above this sort of pedantry in Earth-2).
What is very interesting is that, despite my quibbling, I referred to "our" Roland earlier — as if despite my crankiness, I subconsciously chose one through-line for Constellations from all of the options. I put it down to Adair and Gilde's excellent performances throughout the multiverse, and because secretly I love an intelligent, well-written romantic comedy. And despite its minor problems, Constellations is both.
That Earth-2 me is going to kill me for admitting that.