Constellations: Basic Brits ask What if, then but what now?
Playwright Nick Payne's Constellations follows a couple of basic Brits (Marianne, a Cambridge physicist, Roland, an organic beekeeper) as they meet, court, break up/marry, and deal with illness. The drunken snogs, the needy texts, the icy reunions…If you get off on the grammatology of relationships, this play will hold you tight and spoon you.
One act, two actors always on set, the play grips from beginning to end.
Constellations is about the "what ifs" of romance: What if we'd never spoken to each other, what if we'd never clicked, what if I'd never cheated on you with that berk from the office?
It also deploys that trusty old meme that can animate any plot: Cancer.
In the increasingly dominant version of the competing stories Marianne has trouble speaking and typing because of a rapidly growing brain tumor. It's introduced as an inkling before dominating the final third of the play. Relax, there are emotional lows, but the play is not a total downer.
Silas Weir Mitchell (Monroe/Blutbad on NBCs "Grimm") plays your average, slightly clumsy but earnest middle-aged single male. He's nothing to look at at first but by the end of the play the actor evokes great pathos and can control the room with a facial gesture.
Dana Green plays the open-hearted, open-minded single scientist whose pragmatism succumbs to romance…until her health is threatened. Then her stiff upper lip reflexively begins to rise. Green fizzes with energy, and can turn her character on a dime/sixpence.
The actors' British accents are spot on, which is surely a first for Portland, and their command of the tortuous script is hugely impressive.
The actors play a two- or three- minutes scene. There is a flash of stage lights and a groan from the sound system and they play it again, often with the same words, just different characterization through emphasis, intonation and body language. Most scenes are done three or four times.
The changes are enough to keep the listener more engaged than wearied by repetition.
Add to that the unfolding of the relationship, which telescopes two whole lives into the timeframe of a romance. This is exactly how society trains us to think about ourselves, so it hits the sweet spot of shared self-interest.
Small changes in the dialog also help rivet the attention: Marianne's vocabulary for talking about the temperature of her crotch after a ballroom dance lesson gets plenty of laughter.
This is a weepy play, and we have to face not just the idea of life with cancer, but also attitudes to ending it. But by the end both have become fully-formed, sympathetic characters, because of, rather than the despite, the woven contradictions.
Scenic design and direction by Jason Sherwood and Chris Colemen are powerfully minimal.
Portland Center Stage has definitely save the season's best for last.
Now let's do that again.
The Gerding Theater at the Portland Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, 12pm Thursday, until June 11
$25-$70. ($20 rush tickets 15 minutes before curtain)