Broadway Review: ‘Heisenberg’, the human particle collider
Associate New York Critic
When two people meet and fall for each other, the entire world around them fades out and virtually stops existing. This happened with Georgie (Mary-Louise Parker) and Alex (Denis Arndt) quite literally: there are just two of them in the play and there is no scenery in the production directed by Mark Brokaw, just the text and the actors. There are two chairs and two tables on the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, the space is narrowed by the tribune of 200 seats.
A fine play by Simon Stephens, it explores unbeaten paths of mature people’s romance. At least one of them, Alex, is an age that is rarely associated with sexual activity and bold romantic gestures. He is a quiet Irish butcher in his seventies when he meets Georgie, a forty-something hyperactive and talkative American. She surprises him with a kiss on his neck at the railway station in London and tracks him down at work, turning the chance encounter into a persistent courtship.
Mary-Louise Parker spices her performance with quite a bit of edgy neurotic movements, which adds a layer of danger and vulnerability to this “lonely woman in her 40s” character. Is she insane? Is it just a creepy way to flirt? Is she a threat to an honest, working man? You keep asking all of these questions while being unable to take your eyes off the nuanced performance of Parker. The play answers some of the questions, but it is less about the plot and more about the observation of two human beings falling in love.
There is neither explanation nor a hint in “Heisenberg” on why the play is called so. Presumably it is named after the physicist, Werner Heisenberg, one of the key pioneers in quantum mechanics and the creator of the "uncertainty principle". This principle states that scientists influence the behavior of a particle by just observing it. To eliminate the human impact, elaborate machines such as particle accelerators are created.
Thinking of the name of the play in this way brings us to the meta-level of theater. It is impossible to take the observer out of the equation; depending on who is watching, the piece of art alters its meaning. In this context, it seems appropriate that two audiences are seated opposite each other and you can't help but glance into the void of the orchestra from time to time, like in the mirror. This is quite a unique experience and as much as the play is captivating, the point of view offered is mind-blowing.
The seating arrangement was created to mimic the intimacy of the off-Broadway production of "Heisenberg", which ran on Stage II of New York City Center from May to June 2015. And the effect was achieved, at least for those sitting up close. But what's even more remarkable, this production created the "theater machine" where the fourth wall is a metaphorical mirror. Between two walls of eyes, two particles, Georgie and Alex, collide and we are privileged to watch their interaction in a controlled environment, with obstacles such as other characters and scenery removed. Although the engineering of this "collider" is brave, there is hardly anything revolutionary in this set up. My favorite off-Broadway production last summer, "Peer Gynt", directed by John Doyle ("Color Purple") transformed the Classic Stage Company's venue into a 360-degree amphitheater. I must say, though, that on a scale of Broadway theater the effect is blown up at times, especially when considering the intimacy of "Heisenberg".
Elaborate minimalism, intimate and non-banal love story, layered performances – here are just a few things for which “Heisenberg”, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, is worth seeing. The intimate audience configuration allows for the rare experience of watching a performance up close without looking up actors’ nostrils, so I would definitely recommend getting a seat within the first few rows on stage.
Heisenberg opened on October 13th and runs through December 4th in the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. More information and tickets are available at http://heisenbergbroadway.com/tickets/ .
Photo: Joan Marcus