by Jon L Jensen
Every human interaction is fraught with risk and uncertainty.
This idea is one of several compelling themes driving Simon Stephens’ enigmatic Heisenberg, now playing on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The play begins seconds after its inciting event: Georgie Burns (Mary-Louise Parker) has just kissed a stranger on the neck in a crowded train station.
The kiss amounts to a kind of physical assault on the stranger, Alex Priest (Denis Arndt). She attempts to apologize and explain, but her affront to the 75-year-old man (33 years her senior) continues.
Throughout Simon Stephens’ sparse and immensely funny script (the play lasts 80 minutes without intermission), Georgie continues to confront and insult the older man for his lackluster life, his devotion to routine, his shyness. But these jabs act as a risky game of seduction and a con.
Georgie is a glib, foul-mouthed liar and possible scam artist, but despite it all, Alex begins to fall for her.
The Emmy and Tony Award-winning Parker plays the character with an explosive near-perfection. The sympathetic and vulnerable performance by Arndt matches her acting and builds to a near breaking point of vulnerability and joy.
Alex is a mass of contradictions. He is an erudite and cultured, but a butcher by trade.
When asked how he is feeling, he indicts society’s obsession with emotion. “You can’t go anywhere,” he complains, without these “wretched conversations about feelings being shoved down your throat.” Yet soon after, he admits to regular bouts of crying.
His life marred by early tragedies, Alex is in his solitude and routine. He claims that personalities don’t exist, that a person can always change, but his life up to this point has been nearly changeless.
Everything about his life is thrown into uncertainty by his chance meeting with Georgie. Will the encounter make or destroy him?
Mark Brokaw (How I Learned to Drive) directs the Stephen’s script with precision and infuses the production with unease and dread. Both characters muse about possible cataclysm, the lurking end of the world. Alex’s impending death is palpable. Both survivors of immense loss, the characters plunge into a relationship that could destroy them. Despite it all, the play is equally hilarious.
Stephens, who recently adapted The Cherry Orchard, exhibits a nearly Chekhovian dexterity. His affinity for the Russian playwright is apparent. Like Chekhov, Heisenberg balances between pathos and satire, the sublime and the ridiculous.
With a portion of the audience seated on stage, the play is set on a practically bare set, with only two tables and two chairs. The staging lures us into an intense observation of two characters who become forces of nature.
The play’s title references the Heisenberg Principle of uncertainty. The theory in quantum physics that the more one focuses on a particle’s position, the less we know about its momentum. And conversely, the more momentum becomes the focus, the less is known about position.
Georgie only obliquely references Heisenberg when she notes that the closer we watch someone we love, the less we can see them change. The play begins and ends before its key events. The audience will never know everything about these characters or what will happen to them, but that only heightens our interest.
Alex muses, “We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we’re sharing, don’t we?” It is likely that Heisenberg will evoke varied responses from its viewers, but one thing is certain, these are two characters we will not soon forget.
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Through December 11
Jon L Jensen is a poet and educator. His forthcoming novel-in-verse attempts to give his native Wyoming an epic makeover.