There’s a narrative conceit in Constellations that gives various perspectives on the play’s sole characters—Marianne, an airy, intellectual cosmologist, and Roland, a genial hipster beekeeper. It takes a minute to snap to it, as the same scene plays before you multiple times, only with different outcomes and exchanges, but eventually you realize you’re seeing these people live alternate realities. The device grants you a deeper look into the characters than you would normally get.
It’s a neat trick, and that was enough to make Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson take the roles on Broadway in 2015. But the Alley Theatre—the sly, wily Alley—tweaked this conceit and cast company members and real-life husband and wife Chris Hutchison and Elizabeth Bunch.
It’s a savvy move that turns an already interesting play into an entirely meta theater experience. Marianne and Roland are invented fictions, but with Bunch and Hutchison playing then, they’re also ciphers. When the couple flirt, Bunch and Hutchison have performed that dance before. When Roland proposes, it’s not the first time Hutchison has bent the knee. When they fight… Well, you get the idea. If you don’t know they’re a couple, the play still works. But when you do know, it’s almost impossible not to wonder where the acting ends and reality begins. Houstonia sat down to talk about their roles, what effect the roles had on them, and the impact they had on the characters.
How do you prepare for something like this?
Elizabeth Bunch: Normally you’re trying to figure out what the through-line is, what the character relationships are, who this person is, how they deal with things, and then building that relationship with the other person. Coming to this play, I’m looking at my spouse while I’m doing these things. It’s been much more like life. You already feel everything. And you’re trying to gain control of how much you’re feeling.
Instead of expounding on them, you’re actually reining in?
EB: Yes. We’re constantly trying to keep a lid on how much is going on, as opposed to a normal play where you’re constantly trying to ramp up and get to where you need to be.
To access those feelings.
EB: Yeah. Instead of rehearsal building toward something, there were a lot of rehearsals where we just had to stop because we were too upset. Or because it felt too real.
As you’re watching the character react to tragedy or trial, you’re having to watch someone you love going through the same thing. And you’re having to react as one in love, which you are.
Chris Hutchison: Your job as an actor is—how does Meisner put it?—“to live fully under imaginary circumstances.” With this play, these things aren’t happening to us. But when you’re doing your job as an actor, it sort of is. You’re doing your job by the numbers the way you’re supposed to do it, usually, but the fact that there’s this the person I love there having to face it, it becomes real.
EB: It does.
CH: Like just getting to propose to her again every night on stage, you know? Thinking about the buildup to that. There’s a sequence of six or seven proposals that don’t work. And so to get to the one that does, I get that time to sort of relive like I really was in that situation. It’s interesting to be rejected several times in the play. Because when I asked in real life, Elizabeth, she said yes.
EB: To expand on that, it’s amazing to feel there are people in the room that are now getting to watch the proposal and watch elements of our relationship that we normally wouldn’t show them.
Does it then, at times feel like you’re revealing too much?
CH: I worried about that a little bit with this play. But I think less so now that we’ve had audiences in. But that’s where the strength of the play comes in. It allows us to walk that really fine line every night between us as husband and wife and us as actors playing husband and wife.
The couple meets at a backyard barbecue. Where did you two meet?
EB: We were cast in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream together. And we became really good friends. The show went on tour and we were kind of buddies on the road. Then we came back to New York where we both lived at the time and continued to just keep up a friendship for the next two years.
CH: An honest-to-goodness friendship. She had boyfriends. I had girlfriends. We even double dated.
When did it turn?
CH: It was new for me to be friends with somebody before entering into a relationship and, obviously, that was the missing ingredient. [laughs] Elizabeth had broken up with her boyfriend and was moving back into her old apartment. I was doing a little play—they’re all little plays if they’re not on Broadway. The play was good. And I was good in it. But it was a Thursday night and there was like all of four people in the audience. So there was that. And there was family stuff going on, and I was just really upset. I really needed to be with someone. Talk with someone. Have a drink with someone. So I called Elizabeth and she said, “Yeah, I’m just here, come on down.” And that’s when it all happened.
EB: It is. I’m hesitant to say, because we haven’t actually talked about this because I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but at the end of the play, some of the last lines are about “Why don’t we just go have a drink and see what happens.” And that’s literally what happened to us. He came down to my apartment, and we hung out for a little bit, and I said, “Why don’t we go out for a drink? And if that’s it, that’s it. And if it’s not, maybe something else will happen.” It really was like this invitation.
Has doing this play changed your relationship? Or given you any insight into your relationship that you didn’t have before?
EB: That’s a really good question.
CH: Do you want to answer that?
EB: People always talk about there’s not enough rehearsal time in the theater. It’s like, “We’ve got three weeks and then we’re throwing tech on it!” And I keep joking that we’ve been rehearsing this play for 17 years.
EB: But it’s like in some ways we have not had a lot of trials in our marriage thus far. Which I’m so grateful for.
Certainly not to the level in the play.
EB: Yes, and I hope we never get to that level. I feel like it’s a great rehearsal for where our marriage is and where our marriage is headed.
Sex doesn’t enter into the play until there’s a discussion of quantum mechanics, alternate realities—some very heady stuff. Chris’s character says that kind of talk is turning him on. What turns you on about Chris?
CH: Do I need to leave the room?
EB: This is a great turn on. To be able to flirt with him for 45 minutes. And then resolve a love life in a lifetime in the last 15. It’s wonderful to see him do his work and actually feel like I’m contributing to the work he’s doing right now. That’s exciting. Very flame-igniting.
CH: Her on stage is always really sexy to me. Her talent. Her being out there. It all works for me. Her sense of humor, her way of dealing with conflict in the world. Her way of navigating those kinds of things. The way she’s a mom. Her beauty and her talent. I’m in awe of all she does and how she does it. And I can only aspire to get about halfway there on most of those things.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring this up, but I have to ask you: It was a poorly kept secret that the Alley, under former artistic director Greg Boyd, was a sometimes toxic environment. What can we expect from the Alley now that he’s gone?
EB: What’s amazing is how quickly everything feels different. I mean, from top to bottom. From the 18th floor—where the administrative offices are—down to the Neuhaus Theatre, which is based under the building. The thing I think is exciting is to see that the organization had the strength and the resilience to immediately pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Also this was right after Harvey, when our basement flooded. It was like everything went wrong at once. And we rebounded in such a positive way.
Without a misstep.
EB: Yes! In a cohesive way. The group was ready to have a rebirth. And James Black helming this year was the perfect choice to inspire and keep the spirit alive in the organization. And he’s the reason we’re getting to do Constellations. I don’t know how long this play has been on his radar, but he was like, “We’ve never done something like this. Where the people know you’re married, and the patrons know who you are and they get to see how that works.” I think it teaches our audience another level about what acting and theater is. They get to see us play all these different parts and then they see Chris and I actually get to come together and do something this intimate.
CH: I agree with everything she says. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to say this, but one of the things about the rough times when Greg was there was people would come up to us and ask us about the scandal and that was hard for us to accept it and hear it from people on the outside when that was all going down a year and a half ago. People would ask us, you know, “Why would you stay in an environment like that?” And the reason was, with one exception, the place is amazing. Amazing artisans, actors, craftspeople, designers, budgets.
EB: And that’s what we’ve heard directly from new artistic director Rob Melrose, too. That he feels like people are saying, “Oh my gosh, the Alley, what are they doing? What’s going to happen?” Rob’s like, “I didn’t walk into a problem. I didn’t walk in to a broken system. I’m just walking in and now we’re moving forward.” He’s not trying to fix anything. He’s going about it in his own way. Which happens to be openness, collaboration, humor, caring, creativity…
All the things that were missing.
EB: Yes! He’s just ready to lift us up to the next level, and that’s really exciting.
CH: A great example of that is how he’s handled this transition. Because, you know, this was still James’s season, and Rob was like, “I’m not here other than to just support what’s going on right now.” You know, he’s coming into one of the most sought-after jobs in the country and, for six months, basically plans his future while this whole thing is happening around him. And he has just been charming and supportive and…
...and he hasn’t even started yet.
CH: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. He was picking the new season, he had to have his head down working on the new season for a long time, doing stuff like that but there’s just no ego. We're working as a team. It’s been this really seamless move into the next thing. It’s so promising.
Constellations, thru June 2. Tickets from $39. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.