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CONSTELLATIONS
by Nick Payne
Directed by Michael Longhurst
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson
A Presentation of the Mahattan Theatre Club
at the Samuel E. Friedman Theatre
Official Website

BRIGHT HALF LIFE
by Tanya Barfield
Directed by Leigh Silverman
A Women's Project Production
at City Center Stage II


Reviewed by David Spencer

Itís inevitable that every now and again thereís a play and/or production that falls into the Emperorís New Clothes category; that has pundits and adherents waxing euphoric about what is essentially gimmickry in the service of nothing much, or glib observation in the service of shallow social comment; but Constellations by Nick Payne pretty much takes the cake for no fig leaf over the naughty bits.

                  Purporting to be a kind of science fiction exercise (it so isnít; nor is it speculative fiction), it tracks a relationship between Roland (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Maggie (Ruth Wilson), a young couple who meet at a party and go throughÖstuff. But it isnít set on a stable earth, itís set in what the author calls a ďmultiverseĒ in which any number of realities exist. Thus, Roland and Maggie can meet and seem badly matched; then thereís a chime, they jig back a few lines, someone says something a little different and suddenly they get further down the coupling path than they were before. The conceit being that all these potential possibilities can exist and that in parallel universes, they do.

                  Taken on its own terms, the notion of parallel universes is a hoary old SF trope; even casual observers of the genre will be familiar with Star Trekís Mirror Universe and the TV series Sliders (currently thereís 12 Monkeys)óand thatís just scratching the surface of television.  To survey movies, novels, computer games & etc. weíd be here all day (in one universe anyway). So thatís nothing new.

                  As to the start/stop/go back/fork off device: my goodness, isnít that the signature domain of a major American dramatist, David Ives? Didnít he introduce it in All in the Timing and make use of it sporadically since? Is it not identified with him?

                  All right, that leaves us with the two characters.

                  And theyíre just this generic couple.

                  Who cares what happens to them?

                  Basically, Constellations is a date play with attention deficit disorder. I guess itís well actedówhy wouldnít it beóand director Michael Longhurst has directed efficiently enough that each time we flip into a new universe, the staging and lighting and cooperate with the actors to deliver a perceptible shift of tone and mood; but the implementation is random; no one universe always looks or lights the same, so the direction is as barren as the writing is lazy, and itís terribly lazy.

                  At about an hour an ten minutes of running time, Constellations is the most overrated, overpriced, under-realized package of slick nothing Iíve seen in a very long time.

                  Or have I? Itís hard to imagine the universe in which I would have given this one a passÖ

**************************

Tanya Barfieldís Bright Half Life provides a disquietingly similar effect, though this time our mostly-generic pair (the somewhat more guarded white one [Rebecca Henderson] and the more emotionally open black one [Rachael Holmes]) are lesbians. They donít bounce among universes, but do bounce back and forth among different timeline threads. The characters, more tropes than fleshed-out beings (you might more charitably say essences than tropes, but that would imply minimalist brushstrokes to evoke a sense of something much deeper), go through similarly familiar relationship rituals, and if David Ives isnít being shamelessly emulated, David Mamet is; Ms. Barfieldís play is full of elliptical, incomplete, bumbled sentences meant to represent the halting, bumpy nature of real-life discourse, the device used so aggressively that it has the opposite effect of seeming unnatural. Leigh Silverman has directed well enough, the actresses acquit themselves as well as they possibly can, and Iím honor bound to report that on the night I attended, enough of the mostly-female audience (itís a production of the Womenís Project) were sufficiently in the groove to make all concerned parties happy about their work. But my companion of the evening, as enlightened and cosmopolitan a woman as ever Iíve known, felt pretty much as I did about the play, so I canít say that I necessarily trust the audienceís response to indicate approval of the enterprise so much as the expertise of presentation. Sometimes you can tell the difference, sometimes you canít, and Bright Half Life strikes me as a fooler. But donít take my opinion as gospel; rather, weigh the description (slanted though it may be). If you can spend your theatre dollars happily on that, youíll getÖpretty much exactly what you paid for.


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