Beautiful Chaos

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in Nick Payne’s “Constellations.” | JOAN MARCUS

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson in Nick Payne’s “Constellations.” | JOAN MARCUS

The concept may not be particularly original: Events are examined in non-linear fashion, refracted through concepts in physics related to time, so that we can see how choices one makes shape experience from that moment forward.

But Nick Payne’s play “Constellations,” now at Manhattan Theatre Club, succeeds marvelously. The play is written with economy and is highly relatable, receives fine direction from Michael Longhurst, and features exceptionally precise performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson. This short piece leads us through the relationship between Roland and Marianne from cute meet to hard final choices.

This is territory that has been trod by no lesser playwrights than Michael Frayn and Yasmina Reza, and the echoes of Tom Stoppard here are inescapable. Payne limits the scope of his story to one relationship and a handful of moments portrayed several times from different perspectives and sometimes different plot points. “Constellations” is both simpler — in a very good way — and more heartfelt than larger works by other playwrights. If not as sophisticated an intellectual exercise as some more ambitious, though in some cases obscure, plays, it benefits from tempering the head with the heart, creating a piece that is primarily about human experience and only incidentally a meditation about time.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson star in a non-linear but heart-wrenching love story

We come to care about Roland and Marianne, and can clearly see how their actions have consequences and how life is nothing more than an accumulation of choices and life-changing results. Payne, through his characters, encourages us to look inward and grapple with the existential question gay playwright Thornton Wilder posed in “Our Town” when Emily asks the Stage Manager, “Does anyone ever realize life as they live it… every, every minute?” The answer, of course, is no, even if the Stage Manager suggests that saints and poets may be exceptions.

Under Longhurst’s direction, the scene-and-variation structure moves quickly and effortlessly from one version to the next, and the relationship between Roland and Marianne begins to expand and contract. The pace may be rapid-fire, but it is always clear and takes us deeper into these deceptively simple characters. Tom Scutt’s set is a simple platform surrounded by balloons, which with Lee Curran’s excellent lighting, places the events in an ethereal mileau, appropriate for a play whose turf is “the multiverse.”

Gyllenhaal and Wilson give sublime performances. If at first the slight variations in the repetitive scenes seem like an acting exercise, they swiftly move into richly conceived and committed performances that reflect all the nuances of how experience influences character. Wilson, who is British, and Gyllenhall, who is extremely convincing as British, manage the awkwardness and indirectness that we’ve come to think of as innate to that nation’s character from years of watching Hugh Grant and Colin Firth in a seemingly unending stream of rom-coms. Roland and Marianne are both appealing characters, despite — or perhaps because of — their darker sides, and the star power Gyllenhaal and Wilson bring to their roles doesn’t hurt either. The fact that they are believable and compelling in all of the vignettes is a tribute to their skill at crafting characters.

At its core, the play is the latest piece to examine what’s popularly called the “Butterfly Effect,” also sometimes known as chaos theory, which posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can cause a hurricane in another. In this instance, a simple story that examines the inescapably chaotic nature of human relationships becomes a delicate play of the first order.

CONSTELLATIONS | Manhattan Theatre Club | Samuel J. Friedman Theatre | 261 W. 47th St. | Through Mar. 15: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $155-$797 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 70 mins., no intermission

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