“We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we’re sharing, don’t we?” Perspective is an important theme in Heisenberg, a play by Simon Stephens that just opened at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles after an acclaimed Broadway run last year. While it may be named after theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, there is nothing complex or overly cerebral about this simple human story where two unlikely people’s lives intersect in an unexpected way.
Georgie (Mary-Louise Parker) is 42, American, and comes on incredibly strong. A self-admitted pathological liar, she now works in the main office at a school in London and is loud and abrasive. She has a 19-year-old son whom she hasn’t spoken to in two years for reasons that are never explained, but it’s certainly implied that her sometimes embarrassing behavior was alienating. Georgie has a chance encounter with Alex (Denis Arndt, Tony-nominated for this role), a 75-year-old Irish butcher, in a subway station. In many ways, Alex is her polar opposite—he is reserved and quiet, a man of few words, although he has experienced a great deal of loss in his life and you get the impression he’s desperately looking for a human connection. And so is Georgie, albeit for different reasons that are revealed later. After their initial conversation, she tracks him down at his butcher shop and, despite their 33-year age difference, they end up going on a date.
Directed by Marc Brokaw, everything about the staging of the play is simple. The set (Mark Wendland) consists only of a couple plain tables and chairs, moved around by the actors as needed to emulate various locales. This configuration allows the truly spectacular acting to shine without distraction or pretense. Parker and Arndt are remarkable actors, the kind you would be content to watch for hours beyond the play’s brief 70 minutes. Stephens is best known for adapting The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2015 and will play the Ahmanson in Los Angeles this summer, and the script for Heisenberg is lovely, full of smartly stated universal truths and musings.
Perhaps it’s because there is so much to love in this play and this production that I could not help but want more. The most jarring choice is the exaggerated and rather baffling accent Parker uses for her character, a lisping, almost drunken-sounding slur that makes Georgie seem, to put it mildly, ditzy. It was so overdone that I spent much of the play wondering if it would be somehow relevant to the plot or her backstory, but it is never referenced. This is so bold a choice that it unfortunately undermines and distracts from the truly lovely nuances of the rest of her performance. Her role is certainly the showy one, but Arndt is just lovely, making much of his character’s comparatively fewer words and delivering a real gut punch in a moment where Alex inexplicably bursts into tears, something he admits happens regularly.
There are also a few logic bumps along the way in relation to the believability of the characters’ situations. For example, Georgie’s struggles in locating her son, who has moved back to the United States, are difficult to buy in a story set in the present-day world where social media is so pervasive, particularly among 19-year-olds. Ultimately, Alex gets the richer backstory, and this combined with his character’s calm rationality makes him feel much more like a real person than his counterpart. The ending is abrupt and a little unsatisfying, and there are interesting threads that go relatively unexplored. It should not be expected for a simple story about two adrift people to be wrapped up neatly in a bow, but a tad more emotional resolution could go a long way.
Werner Heisenberg is best known for his uncertainty principle, which states that there is a limit to how much we can know about two variables—essentially, the more we know about one, the less we know about the other. While many who see the play will likely not get the significance as the title is never mentioned in the text, these two characters are forces of nature who seem to have a profound effect on one another, constantly throwing each other off-balance. It may be a bit of a bumpy ride, but it is ultimately an enjoyable one thanks to two incredibly dynamic performances.
Heisenberg runs at the Mark Taper Forum through August 6th. The running time is 70 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. You can also use the TodayTix app to enter a daily lottery to win tickets for just $19.67. Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz.