What makes great theater? If your answer is elaborate sets, music and dance, “Heisenberg” is not for you. But if you want to watch the beautifully acted, captivating interaction between two strangers — lost souls, who, by the end of the 80-minute, one-act-play have formed a vital bond — run to see the ingeniously written “Heisenberg.”
Starring Tony® and Emmy® winner Mary-Louise Parker (“Proof,” “Weeds”) as Georgie Burns, an off-kilter American living in London, and Denis Arndt (“The Night Alive,” “Basic Instinct”), as Alex Priest, a much older, solitary English butcher, “Heisenberg” is performed on a bare stage, with two tables and chairs as the sole props. The actors move the props around to represent, as needed, a train station, a shop counter, a bench and a bed. All the better to concentrate on the imaginative and sharply honed writing of Simon Stephens (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”).
At the play’s beginning, Georgie aggressively pursues Alex, to the point where he fears he is being stalked. Perhaps Georgie is so uncomfortable with, and unaccustomed to human interactions, that she does not know how to conduct a normal conversation, or to make appropriate overtures to a man. She shrieks out the first thoughts in her head. Whether her statements are true or false is unclear, since she declares each to be the truth, then a lie, then the truth again.
Nevertheless, we have our hearts set on Alex and Georgie being able to cut through their angst, insecurities and peculiar crazinesses to find some comfort in each other, despite their having nearly nothing in common. Alex, passive and long celibate (his last name, after all, is Priest) surprises us with his long-dormant humor and sensuality. Georgie, with her charming take-no-prisoners, scorched earth personality (last name, Burns), relaxes enough to want to please Alex.
So what does this comic-drama have to do with the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)? His uncertainty principle relies on a fuzziness in nature that limits what we can know about the behavior of quantum particles and, therefore, everything else in the world. This includes, I guess, the behavior of two lonely people. The title does seem a bit forced though, part of the trend of merging theatre and physics, like “Constellations” by Nick Payne.
And it’s not the first play about the late Dr. Heisenberg that I have seen. Tom Stoppard’s witty “Hapgood” was first produced in London in 1988. Largely about a British female spymaster, played by Felicity Kendal, the drama examined Heisenberg and quantum physics. Although it was not a critical success, my husband and I enjoyed it quite a bit. After revisions, “Hapgood” played at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in late 1994, starring Stockard Channing. The quietly absorbing “Copenhagen” by Michael Frayn, based on an historical 1941 meeting in Copenhagen between Heisenberg and physicist Niels Bohr, premiered in London in 1998 and had a Broadway run in 2000.
Wonderful performances by Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt add immensely to the pleasure of “Heisenberg.” Some may say that the part of Georgie is made for Parker, but that statement belies her talent, which makes the difficult role look easy. Arndt, an accomplished actor, shines in his first lead on Broadway, at age 77. Both he and Parker acted these characters off-Broadway in 2015. So, although the play is technically in previews, the cast and crew have done it all before and it shows in their polished performances.
Ably directed by Drama Desk Award winner Mark Brokaw (“The Lyons”, “How I Learned to Drive”), “Heisenberg” envelopes us into the funny, sad, and sometimes dangerous vortex of a relationship, where we observe a couple as they observe each other and themselves. It’s an exciting piece of theatre.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved