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A CurtainUp Review
Heisenberg On Broadway
By Elyse Sommer
While it's always nice to have a new but small play without a lot of technical wizardry (shades of Stephen's own very high tech The Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight ) hit home enough to be seen by more people, I was somewhat apprehensive about how this delicate little play would fare in a large proscenium theater like the Samuel J. Friedman. One of the not inconsiderable pleasures of the initial production was that the City Center venue was reconfigured so that the stage was a runway between two seating sections making for a truly intimate connection with the actors. It was clear as soon as I entered the Friedman that the Heisenberg team recognized this potential problem and did something about it. The play's bare bones staging enabled director Mark Brokaw to once again put the audience on either side of the actors by moving the balcony seats to the back section of the stage usually needed for scenery.
Even though the on stage seating section had a lot more rows than either section did in the smaller venue, the stadium arrangement and being right on stage worked beautifully for the usually much more distanced balcony population. Though the orchestra section was unchanged, this actors-plus-viewers staging recreated the feel of the original production for everyone. Definitely a commendable first for MTC. I'll therefore continue this with a slight update of my 2015 write-up. . .
The narrative set-up is this: Two complete strangers in a London train station with nothing to connect them. Her name is Georgie and she's 42, an American who came to London when she married an Englishman, His name is Alex and he's an Irish-born Londoner aged 75. She talks a lot but what she says makes no sense to him. Her impulse to plant a kiss on a stranger's neck is, to put it mildly, odd. Nor is it likely that even the most dedicated romantic would see that kiss as likely to stand that famous "a song is just a song" lyric on its head and become far more than just a kiss.
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.
Here's how it impacts Stephens' characters: 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.
With a set consisting of just a couple of tables and chairs the only glitter in Heisenberg comes from the acting and that's certainly 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 whose almost non-stop, almost compulsive talk can't be trusted to be the truth. But though Parker has the showier role, Arndt quickly becomes a much more significant and endearing presence.
While Alex is initially uninterested in having anything to do with Georgie she, of course, breaks through his reserve. Things then 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 — comes from what's said and how rather than from anything that happens.
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 once again steered the actors to effortlessly move the few 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.
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 ). Another a science linked two-hander, Nick Payne's Constellation also played at this theater. Since it did involve more glittery staging and thus couldn't create the intimate two-sided set-up of the current production.
While Heisenberg can only be very loosely described as a science-related play, it deserves a place in 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 Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight Punk Rock
The Trial of Ubu
Search CurtainUp in the box below
Heisenberg by Simon Stephens
Directed by Mark Brokaw.
Cast: Mary-Louise Parker (Georgie),Alex (Denis Arndt)
Scenic design Mark Wendland
Costumes: Michael Krass
Lights: Austin R. Smith
Sound: David Van Tieghem
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Stage Manager: Jeff Brancato
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street
From 9/20/16; opening 10/13/16; closing 12/11/16.
Re-reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/12/16 matinee performance
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