THE BLOG
01/13/2015 07:07 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

First Nighter: Gyllenhaal, Wilson Illuminate Nick Payne's 'Constellations'

Nick Payne's Constellations arrives at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman after winning the 2012 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play and receiving a clutch of rave reviews that encouraged the move from its initial production at London's Royal Court to the West End.

Depending on whether or not you've seen the theatrical device Payne uses throughout the 80-minute intermissionless work, you're likely to respond to it anywhere between greatly awed and slightly less impressed. No matter where you land on that narrow spectrum, you'll be wowed by Michael Longhurst's director of Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson and Tom Scutt's set, which consists only of a raised platform above which hang many balloon-shaped spheres with curlicue ribbons that change colors as Lee Curran's lights hit them.

The device on which your reaction depends is Payne's introducing scenes--he refers to them as "universes"--that play through and then, when the lights and David McSeveney's sound signal, begin again but in variation.

Before the hour and 20 minutes have elapsed, the characters Roland (Gyllenhaal) and Marianne (Wilson) have played 60 or so sequences that suggest infinite variations on a Roland-Marianne relationship that extends from their first meeting at a rainy barbecue through their falling in love, becoming estranged, reuniting until she does or doesn't (spoiler alert! Proceed with caution) succumb to a fatal brain tumor.

If the Q&A session that followed the preview I attended is any indication, most ticket buyers won't previously have seen anything like the Payne ploy. For them, the proceedings are likely to be totally startling. Forgive me, however, for saying that I've seen the conceit. One example is "Sure Thing," one of the six one-acts in David Ives's All in the Timing. Therefore, I remained less whelmed.

Nevertheless, I was whelmed sufficiently by the use to which Payne puts his device. He hints strongly at it with his title, of course. The scenes' variations can be taken in as constellations, can they not, as possibly infinite combinations?

More than that, he nudges audiences along by way of the Roland-Marianne careers. He's a beekeeper, who more than once talks about how the three types of bee--queen, drone and worker--live brief, predestined lives. She's a physicist, who expounds on relativity and quantum mechanics. At one point, she declares, "[One] way of explaining this is to draw the conclusion that, at any given moment, several outcomes can exist simultaneously. (Yoo-hoo, Ives's All in the Timing.)

The fun Payne has illustrating this spin on things like Stephen Hawkings's theory of everything can be--and is--transmitted to the audience, but it's up to Gyllenhaal and Wilson to play it. (In London the cast was Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins.)

Taking into account what seems a great challenge to keep all the scenes pristine--many, if not most, of them only slightly changed from the preceding scene or scenes--they emerge triumphant. Perhaps one of the helpful clues to them are the positions Longhurst has them take for each segment. Call it muscle memory. (Lucy Cullingford is credited as movement director.)

Wilson, whom I saw as Stella in the relatively recent Donmar Warehouse Streetcar Named Desire as well as I watched wide-eyed her devastating stalker on television's Luther (but haven't seen her on The Affair), is a consummate actress called on here to express any number of emotions as the possible stories shift. She has Marianne's intelligence down as it's combined with the woman's anger and eventual fear for her health.

From start to finish Wilson couldn't have been more natural in Scutt's abstract environment, and Gyllenhaal matches her scene for scene. His Roland is clearly likable, if not an IQ match for Marianne. His passion for her is equal to hers eventually for him. He's all good-guy affability, straightforward intentions. (His performance becomes all the more impressive when contrasted with his currently Oscar-touted turn on screen in Nightcrawler.)

Another Gyllenhaal achievement is his mastery of a very specific English accent. I've heard many Americans saddled with British intonations (most recently in the revival of The Real Thing), and I'm obliged to say Gyllenhaal's is the best I've heard from a stateside actor--ever.

Curiously, no dialect coach is mentioned in the program, but I wonder if Gyllenhaal sought the assistance of the same person who worked with sister Maggie on her also excellent (and different) accent for the series The Honorable Woman. Or do both Gyllenhaal's simply have amazing ears for accents?

It's always a pleasure to see a drama that starts you thinking about scientific issues all the while remaining deeply human. Constellations is just that kind of delight.