Review by Kathleen Campion
Moving an intimate, two-person drama from the snug confines of its off-Broadway venue, to the imposing stage of the Friedman Theater on 47th St., seemed decidedly risky. The Manhattan Theatre Club’s Heisenberg at City Center’s Stage 2, was stunning, garnered raves, couldn’t get a seat.
Stage II, is a nifty black-box theater, that put you close to the performers, and their paltry set (just two tables, two chairs and a pillow.) At the Friedman, producers bulked up the traditional 624-seat capacity adding raked, on-stage seating, all but surrounding the players. The worry: would pure size wash out the intensity of the two performances? It does not.
Simon Stephens’ remarkable Heisenberg generates all the potency and disarming immediacy on Broadway that it conjured off Broadway.
The production’s traveled flawlessly in the hands of director Mark Brokaw. What’s more Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt have managed the actors’ magic of bringing Georgie and Alex to fresh life, seven shows a week, on the same pillow and chairs, a few blocks south.
So worries dispatched, here’s a light edit of the original review:
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 an English 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, 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 and 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, impressed New York audiences with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime last year and it is currently selling out at London’s National Theatre; and acclaimed director Mark Brokaw’s collected outstanding director awards from Obie’s to Drama Desk. How could it not be wonderful?
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 Austin Smith, sound by David Van Tieghem, costumes by Michael Krass. Presented by Manhattan Theater Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street Manhattan, through December 4th. Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.