Ginnifer Goodwin and Allen Leech lend their considerable movie/TV star power, charisma, and talent to the Geffen Playhouse Los Angeles Premiere of Constellations, Nick Payne’s brain-teasing look at the multitude of possibilities inherent in a single romantic relationship.

Goodwin stars as physicist Marianne, whose study of string theory posits a “multiverse” in which “at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously.”

Take for instance the series of rapid-fire meet-cutes, each slightly different from the one before, that promise romance ahead for Maryanne and the man (Leech as beekeeper Roland) she meets at an outdoor barbecue somewhere in England.

Multiverse Roland Number One cuts off Marianne’s awkward come-on (“Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows?”) with a terse “I’m in a relationship.” Roland Number Two has just undergone a painful breakup, Roland Number Three is married, and so is Roland Number Four.

Fortunately for Marianne, Roland Number Five happens to be both willing and able to take things a step further, albeit in multiple ways and with multiple outcomes for each.

However confusing this all might seem on paper, it ends up working on stage thanks to Payne’s unexpectedly accessible script, Giovanna Sardelli’s incisive direction, a pair of bravura star turns, and a production design that helps to distinguish each multiverse from the ones before and those yet to come.

Indeed it is to lighting designer Lap Chi Chu’s credit that a sudden switch from color to black-and-white only minutes into the play cues us into a bleaker future ahead for our young lovers than the one we may initially have imagined.

What makes Constellations particularly fascinating is our realization that each Marianne and Roland we encounter is a slightly different person from the one before, making this not just a “what if he’d/she’d said this instead of that?” story but one taking place in an infinite variety of parallel worlds.

From a less ingenious, daring playwright than Payne, Constellations could well have ended up a standard, cookie-cutter romantic disease-of-the-week dramedy, and considering how few moments in Marianne and Roland’s life we actually spend with them, this more traditional one-act might have run only a fraction of its already brief seventy or so minutes, and nobody would have paid it much heed.

Instead, following a couple of star-studded debuts (Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall in London, Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal in New York), Constellations arrives at the Geffen with justified advance buzz for both the play itself and its luminous L.A. stars.

Goodwin (Big Love, Once Upon A Time) and Leech (Downton Abbey, The Imitation Game) deliver dazzling, quicksilver performances that have Marianne and Roland changing moods, intentions, and even personality quirks in a heartbeat as they go from the playful banter of multiple meet-cutes and the romantic missteps that follow to the darkness of those black-and-white scenes and then back again.

Constellations unfolds on scenic designer Takeshi Kata’s black box of a set made magical by its abundance of translucent globes hanging down from above, orbs that not only bring to mind the play’s titular star clusters, when lit from within by Chu’s seemingly infinite array of color schemes, suggest unlimited possibilities and hopes and tragedies and joys.

Lindsay Jones’ sound design and original music add even more magic to the mix, with costume designer Denitsa Bliznakova giving Marianne and Roland each a single, character-appropriate outfit to wear.

Julie Haber is production stage manager and Daniel Trostler is assistant stage manager. Rachel Wiegardt-Egel is dramaturg.

Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA. Understudies Donnla Hughes and Benjamin Davies cover Marianne and Roland.

Constellations explores life and how we live it and death and how we face it in an infinite number of ways. It’s no wonder Goodwin and Leech took time off from lucrative film and TV careers to bring Nick Payne’s one-of-a-kind play to poignant, powerful life on the Geffen Playhouse stage.

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Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
June 15, 2017
Photos: Chris Whitaker

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