By Patrick Hurley
The uncertainty of our relationships is placed into tight focus in Simon Stephens’ charming and evocative Heisenberg, playing now at the Mark Taper Forum.
The play, upon first look, is seemingly a formulaic romantic comedy, albeit with a much more confounding leading lady. We meet Georgie (Mary Louise Parker) at a train station outside of London where she has just kissed the back of the head of a complete stranger. The stranger is septuagenarian Alex (Denis Arndt, who, at 77, made his Broadway debut in this very role last year), Georgie’s operose attempts to get to know Alex, sparks conversations which sparks a series of meetings, all of which are first initiated by Georgie, and all eventually to a relationship.
Simon Stephens breaks the play up into several episodes of this relationship. Each one necessary to the continuation or discontinuation of the relationship. For Alex, who is a very habitual seventy-five year old butcher, the spontaneous and beguiling Georgie is a bit much for him at first, but she eventually wins him over with her earnest pursuit of him. And Denis Arndt, handles all of Alex’s conservativeness with a masterful hand. It’s incredible that he doesn’t lose all focus next to the whirlwind that is Mary Louise Parker. For her Georgie, the pain of loss weighs on her like an accessory, and slight desperation for human connection flows from her energetic mannerisms and highly inflected speech. She is dishonest and manipulative, but always honest about both. A contradiction that makes it impossible to believe her, but also impossible to dislike her. We empathize as we learn more and more how hurt she’s been by relationships and loss. However, she also obnoxious and hinges on seemingly crazy. She fully admits to wanting to scam Alex. She lies. She insults him. And yes, because Ms. Parker just nails every beat and nuance along the way to a fully fledged and beautiful performance, we’re intrigued enough to keep watching what she’ll do next.
Simon Stephens has written a play which poses simple and profound statements about relationships, more specifically about love. The title implies there will either be references to, or even allusions to theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg. Luckily for people who are not versed in theoretical physics or whose knowledge of Heisenberg extends to Breaking Bad, (as mine mostly did) you’re in luck, this play isn’t about that. There is only one indirect mention of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, when Georgie says, “If you watch something closely enough, you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there.” This is exactly how we are meant to watch this play, and indeed this relationship unfold. Because no matter what we think we know about these two individuals, we get blindsided by one or both of them. And isn’t this true in life of our own relationships? Because humanity isn’t one thing. And people are not defined by the fixed presentment of their personalities, because as Alex says “there’s no such thing as personalities…they’re never fixed.” We are all capable of being much more than we are seen as by others and even ourselves.
Director Mark Brokaw keeps this show so tightly together that not one second feels excessive. It’s completely minimalistic, there are only two chairs and two tables that the actors move themselves between scenes, and the scene transitions happen in dim lighting with static sound so quickly they almost serve as an exhale between the scenes. It’s almost as if the play is breathing and alive inside of some heightened and wonderfully theatrical syncopated rhythm.
In the end, this play is quite lovely and simple, but has that rare ability to make a lasting impression. It boasts two remarkable performances, it’s heightened theatricality only plays into the theory that the closer you look at something the harder it is to know where it’s going, and so when it get’s there…catharsis is earned. Georgie’s realization about this relationship at the end of the play is so simple and profound and says something vitally important about her true character. She makes a recognition that proves to be something indelible. Indeed, it’s that thing in life we all seek, and if we have it we need to stop and recognize it, because it’s kind of all that really matters. The rest…is uncertain.
By Simon Stephens
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Tickets are available:
Online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.628.2772
In person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at The Music Center Group Sales: 213.972.7231
Ticket Prices: $25 – $95
Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum At The Music Center
135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.
*Heisenberg is performed without an intermission.