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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 13, 2016

Heisenberg by Simon Stephens. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Scenic design by Mark Wendland. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Austin R. Smith. Sound design by David Van Tieghem. Dialect Consultant Stephen Gabis. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton. Cast: Dennis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker.
Theatre: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Dennis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker
Photo by Joan Marcus

You don't need to know anything about science to understand the issues at the heart of Heisenberg, the play by Simon Stephens that just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman in a Manhattan Theatre Club production. One of the points of the play is that the known and the studied only get you so far with relationships. Eventually, you just have to let go and assume you don't—and can't—know all there is to know about the forces that are affecting your life.

At least as Stephens explores it, it's a corruption (or, if you prefer, adaptation) of German physicist Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which states that the more you know about a particle's position, the less you know about its momentum (and vice versa). It sounds like people, doesn't it? Forever in search of themselves and others, yet constantly moving as well in pursuit of... well, who knows. Sometimes the position matters, sometimes the momentum. It's only a problem if the couple involved aren't on the same wavelength at the same time.

This, alas, is exactly the situation with Alex (Dennis Arndt), an Irish man, and Georgie (Mary-Louise Parker), an American woman, who meet semi-cute in London where they both live. He's 75 and fairly sure of where he is in his life; she's in her early 40s and constantly in flux, in terms of both the ex-husband and 19-year-old son she may or may not have. Her stories keep changing, see, almost as soon as you (and Alex) are positive she's at last pinned down.

What seems inarguable, though, is that they share something, if only because their constant collisions would make it impossible not to. Whether in the train station where they meet, his butcher shop where they get to know each other, or the bedroom in which they learn as much about each other as possible, they can't ignore the chemistry that keeps bringing them together. Neither can you, for that matter. Extenuating factors are meaningless: The here and the now, where romance and even just raw humanity are kindled, is all that's important.

Is it, though? For Alex and Georgie, maybe, but for Heisenberg and Mark Brokaw's production of it, the answer is not as clear. Stephens, who is best known on Broadway for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, pushes the extent of unknowability pretty far, and doesn't always drop the dramatic anchor he needs to keep it on message. Georgie's flightiness is a critical component of making everything work, but her behavior, from her constant personality flipping to her demanding a large sum of money for questionable reasons, is a flood of overstatement that is not properly dammed in Parker's performance.

Sharp, lithe, and whiny, her Georgie embodies both the best and worst characteristics of the stereotypical American woman, which is undoubtedly Stephens's intent. (We need a stark contrast with the riveted-in-place Alex, after all.) But because the character is so disposed to hiding her feelings, if not outright changing them at every major juncture, Parker needs to create a through line of soul that will let us see how the thousand Georgies we encounter are, in fact, all the same person. If not for Parker's distinctive look, voice, and affected, almost bleating line readings, there would be no way to know for sure.

Arndt, though, plays his part superbly, revealing all the minute ways that Alex transforms, for better and worse, thanks to exposure to Georgie's irresistible force. The stodgy, intractable man of the early scenes morphs so gradually into the freer (if still realistic) spirit of the final scene that you don't realize where Arndt is going until he's already arrived. It's magnetic work that's both deeply emotional and resistant to emotion, just as you'd expect from someone as wounded as Alex. (He's lost a couple of influential women in his life, and the impact on him has been severe.) By pushing you away at first, he brings you closer, until he's at last ready for you.

That's no easy trick in these surroundings, however. When MTC premiered Heisenberg Off-Broadway last year, it was in the company's tiny Off-Broadway studio space, where the stage layout with the audience on two sides of the playing area brought you so close to the actors and their characters that you felt intimately involved in their personal and scientific dilemmas. Brokaw has retained the same idea here, but because Mark Wendland's set (not much more than just the risers, a table, and a couple of chairs) no longer has you peering down but instead across, you can't help but focus on your fellow attendees (dozens of them). And of what interest are two particles when you have so many more around to examine?

Because Stephens doesn't make that case, the evening becomes more about the artifice of its creation than the relationship it documents, and despite its intriguing, understated premise (the title is never directly explained), it just isn't written well enough to function in that capacity. Despite Arndt's work, when Georgie says, "If you watch something closely enough you realize you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there," it's tough not to think it applies less to these confused, confusing lovers than to Heisenberg itself.


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