A romance with slippery time

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Nick Payne's Constellations is a play about, or maybe set in, a multi-verse.

Now unless you're a science geek the multi-verse might be a new idea for you. But, trust me, you've thought about it before.

The basic idea is that rather than a uni-verse -- where there's only one -- "In the Quantum Multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes."

Before you dismiss this as either esoteric science or the stuff of comic book series, you've probably wished the multiverse existed. Think about the last time you sat down next to a hot guy or a brilliant woman and wished you'd had the courage to say something -- or even worse, wished you hadn't said that particularly dumb thing. Remember playing out in your head all the different ways that encounter could have gone? That's how Nick Payne imagines it in Constellations.

This two person love story unfolds between Roland and Marianne through a series of repetitions. We get to see their relationship unfold through scenes that are played out and repeated a half dozen times with slight variations. We see their first meeting at a barbeque go off the rails when that initial flirtatious comment falls totally flat. Then we see it fail because one of them is married. Then we see it spark a little romance. It's as if the characters are trying out all the different permutations of this possible encounter. Not just their choices in the moment but all the choices that might have been. A version of -- if I hadn't gotten married five years ago I'd totally flirt with you now. It's sort of like Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day but more complex because we've got two protagonists instead of one and this love story isn't as simple as "boy gets girl."

At first, all this repetition takes a bit of getting used to and feels a bit gimmicky. There's a certain bit of fun imagining all the different ways two people might or might not click but that's not going to get us through 90 minutes. After we get the convention that we're going to see the same moment in time a bunch of times -- the play takes an interesting turn and becomes less about these two lovers and more about how you see them.

Without giving too much away, this love story is a bumpy road. Just after we've gotten our lovers living together there's a sudden revelation of cheating that's played out in both directions: first that she's cheated on him and then the reverse. It becomes a bit of a gut check for our own gender stereotypes. Do you think of the same indiscretion differently if he does it?

Even this mind game can only keep us engaged for so long. Constellations ultimately settles on a tragic love story that tries to pull at our heartstrings. It's a tricky balancing act. If you fall in love with the love story all this bending of time might just get in the way. And if you love the play on time you probably wish it played more with a non-linear structure.

But if you're a nerdy thinker who's also a romantic, this might be the perfect multi-verse for you.

Constellations plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through July 16.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: Ginnifer Goodwin and Allen Leech in Constellations (Chris Whitaker)