Review by Kathleen Campion
Before the lights come up at MTC’s Heisenberg, Georgie, the remarkably engaging woman Mary-Louise Parker gives us, has kissed the neck of a much older stranger in a London train station. The scene opens with her striding around the tiny stage, with audience members at her elbow, explaining herself to the stranger.
She’s funny and quixotic, swinging from vulnerable waif to world weary woman, before costar Denis Arndt speaks more than a dozen words. She’s a young widow of another old man, and she misses every part of him. She “knows” Alex Priest, Arndt’s character, because, as a waitress, you have to be able read people. Priest watches her with a wary fascination, attending to her with remarkable intensity.
But don’t get comfortable, in short order, she tells us these are all lies: she’s never been married and she’s never waited tables. Instead, she’s a receptionist at a school. So playwright Simon Stephens puts us off balance at the get-go. We think we know what’s happening—we think she’s come clean—but now it is up to us to figure out what’s really going on.
The title is the tipoff. The action in the play focuses on two random characters defined by a random act. (Let me say at the outset, if there were no bigger philosophical context, no Heisenberg Principle to consider, the power of these performances would be enough to be called a terrific evening in the theater.)
“Heisenberg”…okay…that’s quantum physics, right? New York theater people may reach back to Stoppard’s Hapgood; it played the Mitzi Newhouse in 1994 and it was rich with dialogue about the “antiparticle trap,” forcing Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle center stage.
In the simplest layman’s terms, that Principle could translate as: people and things are altered simply by being observed. Stoppard insisted you hear the discussion. Stephens is gentler with us. He suggests you read-in the galactic meaning, without a tutorial.
There’s magic here that starts in the script. Stephens’ way with the language has a signature feel. Alex Priest is a butcher by trade. He says he likes the animals. He tells us cows have ‘seams’ and he likes knowing exactly how the creatures “come together.” Ever hear anything like that before? Me neither.
Georgie, the eccentric, conflicted young woman watches her old lover sleep. When she surveys his seventy-five-year-old flesh, she’s taken by its “beautiful folds.” Stephens makes his characters “real people” by giving them unique things to see and say. It sounds simple but it plays with subtle genius.
A very unscientific estimate suggests Georgie’s character has 80 percent of the words. We know Stephens wrote them out for her, and that Mark Brokaw directed her but there isn’t a single moment, including those where the actor blows a line, when the audience doubts she is thinking it up as she goes along.
And Arndt? He listens as hard as she talks. He listens with a vengeance. When she is talking, you struggle to see his face as much as hers. He feeds her attention. He is powerfully engaged. While it may be more common to look at the person who is speaking, he pulls us to his listening.
Among the magic moments: the post-coital scene. Everyone is dressed having removed only their shoes. Yet, as the 40-something Georgie, climbs over the seventy-five-year-old Alex, playing and stroking, laughing and teasing, we watch a few moments of real intimacy. Priest is sexy in his confidence. This is not a mercy fuck. He’s delighted with the young woman in his bed, even grateful, but more than up to it.
MTC commissioned Heisenberg. It is in a short, debut run at City Center’s Stage II—a nifty black box theater that puts you close to the performers. The two actors move the rudimentary furniture: two chairs, two tables, two pillows and little else. The creative team—Mark Wendland (scenic design), Donald Holder (lighting), and David Van Tieghem (sound)—put a fresh spin on scene change. In low light, the actors assume a position. There is crack of sound and the lights come up and… “Action!” A simple device that wears well.
Everyone connected with this project is an award winner: Mary-Louise Parker’s polishing her Emmys, Tonys and Golden Globes, playwright Simon Stephens a two time Olivier-award-winner, has one of the hottest properties on the NY stage – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; and director Mark Brokaw’s got a Drama Desk. How could it not be wonderful?
I may be the only New York critic reviewing Heisenberg who has not seen “Incident,” So I will not draw any parallels. Heisenberg is pretty special on it’s own.
Go see this. Then go somewhere snug to figure out what you saw. There will be words!
Heisenberg – By Simon Stephens; directed by Mark Brokaw.
WITH: Denis Arndt (Alex Priest) and Mary-Louise Parker (Georgie Burns.
Designed by Mark Wendland, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by DavidVan Tieghem, costumes by Michael Krass. Presented by Manhattan Theater Club at Stage 11, New York City Center, 130 West 55th Street, Manhattan, through June 27th. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.