In 2009, the playwright Nick Payne, then just 25, won the admiration of English critics and audiences, along with the prestigious George Devine Award, for his remarkably self-assured debut, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. A year or so later, he made a series of choices that led to the play that confirmed him as one of the most dazzlingly gifted dramatists of a new generation—sharp, funny, wise, humane.

First, he chose to watch a documentary about the declining honeybee population and decided to write a play about an artisanal beekeeper, only to abandon it because, he says, “I wasn’t quite sure how you do bees live onstage.” Not long after this he happened to watch The Elegant Universe, hosted by the physicist Brian Greene, who explained the multiverse theory, which says that there exist a vast number of parallel universes in which we’re living out different versions of our lives based on our having made different choices, large and small, along the way.

Payne then decided to write a play about a physicist, but he couldn’t quite shake the beekeeper—and so, he says, “I just took these two characters from different worlds and smashed them together in the same story.”

The result of that collision is the gorgeous, deceptively simple two-character drama Constellations, a smash at London’s Royal Court Theatre and later in the West End, which comes to Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club this month starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Roland, a beekeeper who makes artisanal honey, and Ruth Wilson as Marianne, a physicist specializing in theoretical cosmology. The episodic 70-minute play follows the course of their relationship, but its brilliant conceit is that it embodies the multiverse theory in its very structure, showing us five or six snapshot variations of each encounter, each with a slightly different outcome. “I thought this could give the play a shape and a rhythm and a musicality,” Payne says. “Part of Constellations is also me declaring to an actor right at the start that this requires a level of invention, interrogation, and playfulness that is inherent in any rehearsal room anyway—so why not make it explicit in the form of the show?”

During a lunch break in a midtown rehearsal room I meet the pair of actors charged with finding those qualities, both of whom saw and fell in love with the play in London. Though Gyllenhaal has four films in the can, he has been increasingly drawn to the stage, most recently playing a drifter with boundary issues in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. Wilson, an off-kilter beauty, first made a splash as a young governess in the 2006 BBC miniseries of Jane Eyre and has since become a star in the U.S. as the mysterious Montauk waitress on Showtime’s The Affair—though she is a stage veteran with two Olivier awards. “I’d just done five months with a camera in my face and was quite keen to get back onstage and back into my body,” Wilson says. “But I wanted something that challenged me in a different way.”

“I think the thing that makes it challenging, and ultimately why I wanted to do it,” Gyllenhall adds, “is that it feels as if underneath the words is—forgive the pun—a universe of choices. And there will never be a night when those choices will be the same. Even in the past two days, we’ve interpreted certain scenes at least five ways.”

“That’s the genius of it,” says Wilson. “It’s a huge, universal theme, but told through a love story. It makes your mind spin with ideas and thoughts about all the options available to you, but also about how fate plays a role—maybe you don’t actually have any free will at all. Nick has a huge heart, along with an amazing intellect, and he combines the two in a really beautiful, simple way.”

“And the type of work we know we have to do,” Gyllenhaal adds quickly, “is a little terrifying for both of us—or maybe I should just speak for myself.”
“No, no,” Wilson says with a nervous laugh. “You can speak for me.”

The costars have been mitigating their terror through preparation: Gyllenhaal has been studying books on beekeeping, while Wilson has been watching documentaries about cosmology and spending time at a planetarium. Their job, of course, is to bring to life the vivid particulars of the relationship between their characters—one of whom sees life through the microcosm of the beehive while the other looks toward the vastness of space.

“It makes me think of all the permutations of relationships,” Gyllenhaal says. “Times when I’ve approached somebody and they haven’t been interested, or someone’s approached me and I haven’t been interested, or maybe things felt really, really right but it still didn’t work out—every incarnation possible. We’ve all had those moments.”

Much of the play’s poignance comes from the juxtaposition of the limitlessness of the universe and the finite nature of human existence. “It’s like that moment when you find yourself out in nature and just feel so tiny and insignificant and unimportant,” Wilson says. “We’re really not much in all of that vastness—but we’re all we’ve got.”

“The beauty of the play, what’s really astonishing,” Gyllenhaal adds, “is that it’s not just a conceit. Ultimately it’s written from a really unconscious place, which is where I think all the most beautiful work is done—that larger part of our mind that we have yet to explore.”

Payne would have to agree that his unconscious mind—and the specter of mortality—played a large part in the writing of Constellations. Though he wasn’t aware of it at the time, he has since conducted what he calls “a sort of sub-Freudian analysis looking back on it all” and realized that his obsession with infinite universes filled with infinite possibilities was a way of coping with the recent death of his father. “I quite romantically loved the idea that there might be another universe where my father’s still alive and we’re both perfectly fine and really happy,” Payne says. “The concept of a multiverse is a wondrous thing, but it’s also weirdly cruel because I’ll never get to experience those other universes, will I? I’m stuck in this universe—without him.”