HEISENBERG at the Mark Taper Forum
For the recently widowed Georgie Burns, meeting Irish transplant Alex Priest in a London train station sparks an instant connection, at least on her part. For one thing, never before has she met a butcher able to refer to a conversation with her as something starting to get cyclical.
So is the beginning of the gloriously mismatched love affair that is central—no, everything—in Simon Stephens’ remarkable play Heisenberg, now making its left coast debut at the Taper starring its original and highly celebrated New York cast: Mary-Louise Parker as Georgie and 77-year-old Tony-nominated “newcomer” Denis Arndt as Alex.
The elephant in the room here is that Georgie is 42 and Alex is 33 years her senior. Yup, two years younger than Arndt himself, whose appearance in this play put him on the theatrical map after a 45-year career that definitely deserved this latter-day turn of events. The eccentric, motormouthed Georgie pursues the mild-mannered and highly suspicious Alex relentlessly, stalking him through London butcher shops before showing up at his, promising the unnerved guy that she intends to buy an “amazing amount of meat.”
The relationship, of course, eventually develops into a torrid love affair and, in the Taper’s special traverse (two-sided) staging adopted to mimic the New York production, one can watch the audience members on the opposite side squirm a tad when Parker and Arndt share their first steamy, passionate open-mouthed kiss.
Stephens has created a highly unique play from a rather predictable situation, delicately peeling away the layers of Georgie’s ditsy dysfunctionality and Alex’ intense emptiness and disappointment with life as their improbable relationship intensifies. As he relaxes his guard and begins to trust Georgie, he recognizes she’s a completely unexpected boon to his world, while for her, what may have been something she initially initiated at least partially for mercenary reasons, their bond eventually makes her mourn the fragility of our time hanging onto our rapidly-spinning planet with both fists. “It’s really brief, life,” she tells Alex, “and really quite unfair."
Arndt is arrestingly and confidently simple as the lonely butcher, his physicality subtly but perceptibly becoming less and less obstructed by both gravity and social placement as his love for Georgie grows. Even the first time Alex hops youthfully into bed next to her, suddenly resembling a college freshman getting lucky at a frat party, gets a well-deserved reaction from Heisenberg’s supportive audience. Arndt contributes a memorable performance without a second of contrivance in a role that could be a huge gaping trap for any actor.
Parker, however, gifted as she is, seems to fall headlong into Georgie’s mirror-image traps. That annoyingly overworked ditsy Goldie Hawn/Diane Keaton/Liza Minnelli/Amanda Plummer female character can get tiresome quickly these days, especially when it feels as though that’s the only way such a character—a woman presented as a sexual creature who goes after what she wants in an effort to seduce a member of the opposite sex—can be comfortably depicted. More colors, more heart, less standard mannered choices would make Parker’s performance many times more effective.
Still, a large part of this problem might be the venue itself. The sound at the 739-seat Taper is challenging enough, but when the space is opened to having even more audience on the opposite side while recreating director Mark Brokaw’s original staging from the far more intimate Manhattan Theatre Club, the result is problematic. From where we were seated, I thought at first Georgie was meant to be a hearing-impaired character.
It was almost impossible throughout the performance to understand most of Parker’s lines, something at first that I, with horror and trepidation attributed to my own 70-year-old ears, found scary until I realized that a.) I could hear every word uttered by Arndt’s soft-spoken, understated Alex and b.) others around me, not to mention friends seated far closer as part of the onstage seating, later confessed they were equally frustrated by how much of Parker’s dialogue they missed.
Regardless, this is an amazing achievement, one that led me to immediately go home and order my very own copy of the play from Amazon. Brokaw’s staging must have been dazzling in better physical conditions and what Stephens’ gives us could easily become a modern classic.
The title of the play itself is crafty and thought-provoking, insisting we work to unearth what it means at its core, especially since the name Werner Heisenberg never once comes up. Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” developed in the 1920s at Niels Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen, is foundational in the field of modern quantum physics. “One may say,” he theorized, “that in a state of science where fundamental concepts have to be changed, tradition is both the condition for progress and a hindrance. Hence, it usually takes a long time before the new concepts are generally accepted.”
The relationship between Georgie and Alex is splendidly untraditional and the fact that we, the audience, collectively become accepting and even root for the pair to succeed, is a testament to Stephens’ brilliance.
Interestingly, my friend Penny Stallings, a staunch lifelong feminist who joined me for opening night, thought it would be fascinating to see Heisenberg cast in an opposite configuration—that is, featuring an older woman and a male as Georgie. I, on the other hand, half of a surprisingly unexpected four-and-a-half-year relationship with a gorgeous guy 42 years my junior—who currently makes more money than I do, I must add—also wondered how it would play if Georgie was played by a male, especially if the reticent butcher had never before been part of a gay relationship.
What both these ideas say for Heisenberg and the writing of Simon Stephens is that his chameleon-strong grasp of human nature and the way our world turns these days, despite the unconscionable temporary troglodyte-populated setback of our American political system, elevates him as one of our most important contemporary wordsmiths. I have not yet seen his Tony-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time but I hope when it arrives here next month, it’s message is not swallowed up by the cavernous Ahmanson as clearly as the Taper has hampered Heisenberg.