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Are You Sure You Want to Do That?

Date: Jan 14, 2015
Director Michael Longhurst isn't big on naturalism---at least not for the shows he helms. That's part of why he and playwright Nick Payne work so well together. Over the past three years, the British compatriots have collaborated on a number of thought-provoking productions. Now they're both making their Broadway debuts with Manhattan Theatre Club's Constellations, a remounting of their first project together in England.

The time-bending two-hander explores the notion of the multiverse by replaying key moments in the romance between a beekeeper (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a theoretical physicist (Ruth Wilson, of Showtime's <i>The Affair</i>) in various ways. Exchanges end abruptly only to start over with subtle differences that change their outcomes. Sometimes it's a tweaked line or situation, or maybe just a new intonation or attitude. Its structure is anything but realistic, and that's why Longhurst went for a symbolic aesthetic.

"I wanted to celebrate the theatricality of the piece," he explains. "The only props are a wedding ring and a piece of paper, and there are no scene changes. The design challenge was, how do we show they're jumping universes? Tom [Scutt, the scenic and costume designer]'s elegant set taps into the larger themes of the play. They're standing on a slice of honeycomb floating in the galaxy. They're atoms colliding and re-colliding, so they're surrounded by balloons, which are delicate and can burst at any time, a wonderful metaphor. The balloons delicately rub against the ideas of the show in a way that was better than if we had hung up a bunch of stars. I nearly went to art school so the visuals are very important to me. The set should be a device to frame the actors, a playground for them to work in."

Though Longhurst brought most of his West End creative team with him, including Scutt and lighting designer Lee Curran, both Gyllenhaal and Wilson are new to the show. However, Longhurst had worked with both of them previously, which he says is essential for such an intimate production. "I directed Jake in If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet [Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre], and I directed Ruth in a student production of The Crucible when we were at the University of Nottingham. Constellations is incredibly intense, both its subject matter and its acting challenges. You want to know that you have actors who can go to the places they need emotionally, have the skills to deliver a stage performance, and are people you want to be in a rehearsal room with!"

Of course, new actors and a new audience with a different culture meant adjustments had to be made. "It's been interesting bringing the show to Broadway," Longhurst says. "The heart is still the same, but we have two new wonderful performers who have a different perspective and chemistry. I want to make sure it feels fresh and that the actors inhabit it as theirs. The storytelling has been sharpened, some of the transitions are bolder, and a few obscure British references were swapped or excised. Even so, there seems to be a bit more mystery in the way the story unfolds here in America. People don't know where it's going as quickly."

After watching the lovers' lives play out on divergent timelines, viewers may leave the theatre wondering about the impact of even the simplest decisions. "It makes you think about the value of your choice at any moment," says Longhurst. "We are fascinated by our own autonomy. Do we really have free will? What determines how we act? We're creatures who ponder the could've, should've, might've done."


Raven Snook is TDF's associate editor of online content

Photos by Joan Marcus