Heisenberg – Tries too Hard for Significance

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heinsenberg-5-jpeg_editedBy Karen Isaacs

Heisenberg, the new play by Simon Stephens who adapted the brilliant The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night may not compare with that work, but it still can provide some interesting observations about people and how we perceive them.

Yet despite these, I was not totally absorbed. It seems as though the playwright and director has employed too many gimmicks to make it seems as though this story of a quirky 40+ woman and the reserved British butcher she befriends has more merit than it really does.

The plot is simple. Georgie Burns, played brilliantly Mary-Louise Parker, who often specializes in these types of roles, is an off-beat American living in England. Kooky is often applied to characters like her; non-stop talking, invasion of others’ space and privacy, inappropriate comments. You either find her charming or incredibly irritating and manipulating.

As the play opens she has apparently kissed the back of an elderly man’s neck while he is sitting in the park. A brief exchange leads to a one-sided conversation; Georgie does all the talking though it is obvious he would prefer to be left alone. During the conversation, she reveals a great deal of information about herself, swears a lot and announces a number of conclusions about him.

HeisenbergMTC Friedman Theatre
Mary-Louise Parker. Photo by Joan Marcus

Soon she shows up at his butcher shop. Is she stalking him? She confesses that almost all the information she told him in the park was lies.  Yet somehow she convinces him to go out to dinner with her. The one fact she claims is true is that she has a 19-year-old son who two years ago left for the United States to discover his American roots. He has written that he never wants to see or hear from her again.

Alex Priest – wow, the symbolism of that name is obvious – shares that he is 75, the butcher shops loses money and he enjoys music of all genres. To prove it he reels off a long list of genres from classical to hip hop and beyond. He also tells her about the girl to whom he was engaged and how she broke off the engagement because she had fallen in love with someone else.

They end up in bed, sharing post coital words. And despite the age difference, perhaps this relationship might actually go someplace.

But not quite. Soon she asks him for $15,000 to visit New Jersey (her son’s last known address) to search for him. Alex suspects that she had been planning this all along and she does not deny it. But later he agrees and she suggests he accompany her.

The last scene is in New Jersey. She seems to have little idea about how to go about finding her son and doesn’t appear very determined. The play ends rather abruptly.

The first question you must ask is what the title, Heisenberg, has to do with the play?

HeisenbergMTC Friedman Theatre
Denis Arndt.  Photo by Joan Marcus

Werner Heisenberg was a 20th century German theoretical physicist; he is a central character in the play Copenhagen. Heisenberg was known for many things, one of which was the “uncertainty principle” which I cannot describe.

Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle seems to be the guiding idea of the play: how things are not as they seem. Alex even states it when he says to Georgie, we hold very different perspectives of the event we’re sharing, (I paraphrase the line).  Director Brokaw has reinforced this by having rows of seats on the stage facing the audience. So depending on where you sit, you get two very different perspectives of the action.

There are disadvantages to this. I spent part of time watching the reactions of the on-stage audience. In addition, the actors have a very small playing space.

So is Georgie just an eccentric woman with a potty mouth? Or is she a scammer who sought a lonely older man to finance her journey?  Does her son even exist? Stephens never makes the truth clear. What about Alex Priest? Why does he loan her the money and go along? Is it because he realizes his life has been quite dull and time is running out? He says he’s been disappointed with other people; so why take up with Georgie?  A clue might be in his line that “music exists in the spaces between the notes.” But is that just a statement that sounds insightful but doesn’t bear closer examination?

It seems as though everyone involved is trying too hard to be symbolic and significant. This might have worked better as a comedy á la Two for the Seesaw. Does it really to be more?

Parker does a fine job with a mercurial and to me, annoying character. Denis Arndt, who seems to have worked mainly in regional theaters, plays the reserved Alex. It is a quiet role and he does show us some of Alex’s depths but I never understood the motivation for his actions.

The set by Mark Wendland is only props due to the two audiences and the lighting by Austin R. Smith and costumes by Michael Krass are likewise simple.

Overall, Heisenberg is a play that will amuse some and others will find it somewhat predictable.

Heisenberg is at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman at 261 W. 47th St. through Dec. 11. For tickets visit Telecharge.

HeisenbergMTC Friedman Theatre
Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker. Photo by Joan Marcus


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