The "what if" concept isn't new, and neither is that of "free will vs. destiny" or the Butterfly Effect, but somehow Nick Payne's sweet, small play Constellations makes it feel as though it's exploring uncharted territory.
With a change of lighting and some ethereal sound cues (Ryan Rumery's sound design is excellent), we see Roland (Alex Organ) and Marianne (Allison Pistorious) meet over and over again at a barbecue. The first time, he's married. The second, his girlfriend's "right over there." Finally, he's single and receptive to Marianne's silly opening line about the impossibility of licking one's own elbow. These fragments set in motion their own massively differing outcomes, many of which we get to see over the remaining 90 minutes.
Constellations could simply be written off as a "choose your own adventure"-type gimmick, save for one thing: the concept of choice. Marianne is a theoretical physicist, researching natural phenomena and its causes. Roland is a beekeeper, caring for insects that rely on instinct for survival. No matter who makes the first move, or even who cheats on whom, are we all fated to end up in the same place regardless?
Think about it long enough, and your brain will probably start to hurt. So it's a good thing director Wendy Dann has sorted through the tangled web of Roland and Marianne's lives and produced a swift and surprisingly easy to follow story of two human beings getting pulled along in Earth's rotation.
Organ and Pistorious, too, deserve accolades for keeping their characters accessible — haven't we all had dating gaffes or tried too hard to impress an old flame? — while just mysterious enough to stoke the fires of curiosity. Some scenes are truncated or out of order, but that only makes them more powerful when we're later given opportunities to connect the dots.
In one scene, Pistorious is tearfully confessing an infidelity while Organ shuts down, hurt and pain etched all over his face. In the next moment, she's once again confessing but this time he's furious, rage propelling him off his seat and threateningly toward her. Steve TenEyck's set design, a blue swirl with many concealed storage spaces for props, becomes in moments like that almost a boxing ring, containing these two while events of their lives spin wildly out of control. Above them float orbs of various sizes, lending a touch of the literal to the tableau.
But sometimes all this switching makes it difficult to really grab onto the characters and their fates, knowing that in the next few seconds they might get a do-over and a horrible transgression might be wiped away. It's a tiny qualm with Payne's otherwise expertly crafted play, but one that still makes you wonder, "What if?"
Dallas Theater Center's Constellations runs through October 9 in the studio space at the Wyly Theatre.