A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But Simon Stephens hasn't named this strange and touching May-December romance Heisenberg for nothing. It also happens to be the surname of the German physicist who first came up with the uncertainty principle.
Alex (Denis Arndt) lives a life harnessed by certainties: He will walk to and from his butcher shop each day, no unanticipated contacts with anyone but the people who buy his meats, read and listen to music. . .and every day write fifty words (no more, no less) into his diary. Georgie (Mary-Louise Parker), on the other hand, is in a limbo of confusion about her self-image and the loss of a husband and son.
Manhattan Theatre Club has been giving theater goers a chance to see the theatrical possibilities of weighty scientific concepts since their first collaboration with Mary-Louise Parker. That was fifteen years ago, when she played a mathematician's daughter in David Auburn's Pulitzer-prize winning Proof. (review ). Earlier this year MTC brought another science linked two-hander, Nick Payne's Constellation, to their main stage. ( Our review ).
Heisenberg is a much smaller enterprise than Mr. Stephens brilliant The Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight ( review). Constellation also wasn't as elaborate as The Curious Incident. . . but it did involve some glossy staging.
But there's nothing glossy about Heisenberg, This is a strictly bare bones production. The set consists of a couple of tables and chairs. Its only glitter comes from the acting and that's in good hands here. The part of Georgie seems written to order for Mary-Louise Parker's singular affinity for somewhat lost, almost child-like characters. The less well-known Denis Arndt's Alex at first seems mostly a sounding board for Parker's Georgie— but he quickly becomes a much more significant presence.
Like the main character in the New Group's just opened The Spoils,( review), Georgie talks constantly, almost compulsively — and much of what she has to say can't be trusted to be the truth. But unlike that play's hard to like Ben, Georgie IS endearing.
The plot, such as it is, starts with the aftermath of that impromptu kiss. Alex is startled but uninterested in having anything to do with Georgie. And yet that odd kiss does turn out to be more than just a kiss.
Georgie breaks through Alex's reserve and things move from the railroad station, to Alex's shop, his home, and even further afield. These moves don't just go to different locales but to the different parts of themselves that these two lonely people reveal to us and to each other.
There's not much point to going into more details, especially since what actually happens is a bit hard to take at face value (probably calls for a closer exploration of the uncertainty principle). Anyway, the devil — actually in this slight but charming play, the delights — come from what's said and how rather than what actually takes place.
The story won't make the idea that anyone would kiss a stranger as Georgie does, less of a fairy tale loosely linked to a physics concept. But who cares with Ms. Parker so radiantly inhabiting an ordinary woman seeking and finding enough certainty to live with uncertainty. And Mr. Arndt, while not your average Prince Charming, most certainly isn't a dull old codger. It's a pleasure to see him cede his tightly controlled certainty for that something more than just a kiss.
Mark Brokaw has steered the actors to effortlessly move the simple set pieces around themselves. Under his guidance they simply become travelers lugging their wheelies to the different stops in their journey through life's only certainty: that nothing can ever be completely certain.
Whether Brokaw or scenic designer Mark Wendland came up with the idea for reconfiguring MTC's smaller theater at City Center, it's a grand idea. Instead of one wide center seating area and two shorter side sections, Heisenberg is staged with the playing area flanked on either side by a long center seating area. In other words, the added center section is what's usually needed for back panels, walkways and larger casts. Result: There isn't a less than premium seat in this house.
Heisenberg is yet another interesting addition to our archive of math and science related plays we've covered. Check it out for yourself here .
Following are links to some of the other plays by Simon Stephens we've reviewed in New York and London:
The Trial of Ubu