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'Constellations' review: Stunning Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson on Broadway

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in Nick Payne's

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in Nick Payne's "Constellations" at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

One danger in describing "Constellations" -- and there are more than a few -- is that Nick Payne's time-traveling, two-character, 70-minute invention will sound like a technical gimmick. Another peril would be to let his way of repeating short scenes with different emphases suggest just an acting exercise. Or worse, upon learning that the action takes place in "The Multiverse" of the "Past, Present and Future" and that a character is a quantum cosmologist, one could be excused for dreading a physics lesson.

In fact, with actors less compelling and unpretentiously appealing as Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, it's likely that this deeply moving and unpredictable romance would never have made it to Broadway at all. But here they are, making their dazzling Broadway debuts as characters who, despite the brevity of the evening, make us feel as if we have been through countless possible ups and downs in a very real, intimate relationship.

Gyllenhaal plays Roland, a sensitive English beekeeper, a man who could not be more different from the dark, attention-craving character he plays in the current movie "Nightcrawler." Wilson, who just won a Golden Globe for her complex portrayal of half of the adulterous romance in Showtime's he-said/she-said series "The Affair," plays Marianne, the slightly awkward scientist whose idea of a romantic come-on is to explain the cosmic impossibility of licking the tip of one's own elbow.

Thus, despite Payne's heady theories about free will versus multiple universes, we begin with the delightful sight of two beautiful movie stars trying, in vain, to lick the outsides of their own elbows. And we're hooked.

Director Michael Longhurst, who staged Gyllenhaal's 2012 Off-Broadway debut in Payne's "If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet," seduces us into the strict formality of the work with friendly, offbeat playfulness. Designer Tom Scutt surrounds them with big white balloons that hang from the ceiling or raise from the floor.

Are these party decorations? Or are they vast universes that, with a flash of light and a snatch of music, change the meaning of life and love, again and again?

There are dozens of short scenes, some repeated with different emotions, some that leap forward in time or fold back into a previous moment. Wilson and Gyllenhaal snap and shift into different positions with each blackout, giving flesh to Marianne's belief in an infinite cosmos that contains "everything you have ever done and never done." The play may suggest Tom Stoppard here and Caryl Churchill there, but nothing Broadway ever does is quite like this.

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