2nd Opinion Review: “Heisenberg” at Manhattan Theatre Club

David Roberts

  • Chief New York Theatre Critic

“You're not. You can hear it. That’s not listening to it. That's different from listening./You need to follow it. The melody. Try to predict what will happen to it next. It will completely take you by surprise./That's the secret that nobody knows about music./Music doesn't exist in the notes. It exists in the spaces
between the notes.” – Alex Priest

Georgie and Alex meet at London’s St. Pancras train station when Georgie approaches Alex and kisses the back of his neck They have never met and the connection that begins with a kiss is the engaging subject of Simon Stephens’s “Heisenberg” currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Why Georgie seeks out Alex and why he responds to her advances the way he does is the delightful plot driven by the conflicts of these two scintillating characters.

Both Alex Priest (Denis Arndt) and Georgie Burns (Mary-Louise Parker) are living “in spaces between the notes” in the scores of their quite different lives. Georgie has determined she needs to return to the United States to try to find her son Jason who went back to Chicago to live with a girlfriend, married her and now lives in New Jersey. Jason has made it known he is “sick of [his mother]” and never wants to see her again. Alex never married and talks to his sister in his dreams. She died when Alex – now seventy-five – was eight years old.

It is in the delicate interstices between the connections that Georgie and Alex exist. Neither chooses to risk focusing clearly on the other not do they chance the other clearly focusing on the fragile space they have chosen to occupy. The fear translucently relates to the title of Simon Stephens’s captivating play and the theory it alludes to; namely, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that asserts that “the very act of observing alters the position of the particle being observed, and makes it impossible (even in theory) to accurately predict its behavior.”

When discussing her son, Georgie tells Alex “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. Did you know that? That's actually the truth. That's actually scientifically been proven as the truth. By scientists. They all got together and they completely agreed on that. If you pay attention to where it’s going or how fast it’s moving you stop watching it properly. I watched him all the time. He took me completely by surprise.” And when sharing his dream connection with his sister, Alex shares, “Whenever it’s a decision that probably I need to make for myself she just disappears. It becomes very hard to focus on her any more.” 

Under Mark Brokaw’s astute direction, Ms. Parker and Mr. Arndt tackle the rich complexities in Mr. Stephens’s script and successfully grapple with the mysteries of human connection. Mr. Arndt gives Alex a solid core of strength grounded in disappointment – a strength that seems no longer to have a trust for feelings. He tells Georgie, “The idea of ‘feeling’ shy. People are so obsessed with feelings nowadays. It’s all anybody ever talks about. It’s ludicrous. You can't go anywhere without these fucking wretched conversations about feelings being shoved down your throat. Literally down your throat. With clenched fists. I feel my clothes and the wind on my face. I don’t feel. I think.” 

And Ms. Parker creates a distressed Georgie who borders on the brink of dissociation “Tell me something. I feel like all I’ve been doing all evening is talking. I always do. It's because I'm terrified of what people really think of me. In the end I do know that people will reject me so I try to behave in a way that just speeds the whole process up but I really want this to be in some way different. I really do. I do. Largely because of your eyes.”

Georgie and Alex test the limits of human connection and eventually find a common ground where true communication can exist. They strip away all of those things that get in the way of rich and meaningful communication and connection. In the end, Georgie wonders, “I missed the point about everything didn't I?” But then perhaps that is the point: we miss the point about everything because we pay attention to where things seem to be going or how fast they are moving and stop watching things properly. Heisenberg meets the vicissitudes of the human condition and clarity convenes on the stage of life and on the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.


The creative team for “Heisenberg” includes Mark Wendland (scenic design), Michael Krass (costume design), Austin R. Smith (lighting design), David Van Tieghem (sound design), Stephen Gabis (dialect consultant) and Sam Pinkleton (choreography). Production photos by Joan Marcus.

Performances are at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre and vary from week to week throughout the run. For the complete performance schedule visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/. Tickets are available at Telecharge.com, by calling 212-239-6200 or visiting The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre Box Office at 261 West 47th Street. Ticket prices are $70-$150. Running time is 80 minutes without intermission.

WITH: Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker.