An earlier version of this review of Heisenberg in its world-premiere run at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage II was originally published by THR on June 3, 2015.
Early on in the new two-hander by Simon Stephens, Georgie, the 42-year-old-old free spirit played by Mary-Louise Parker, asks Denis Arndt’s much older Alex, “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?” The short answer, for both him and the audience, is yes. Depicting the unlikely romance that blossoms between these two lost souls, Heisenberg is a quirky comedy-drama that manages to live up to both adjectives.
Written by the author of the 2015 Tony Award winner for best play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the production represents something of a coup for Manhattan Theater Club, which premiered Heisenberg in its tiny Stage II space in 2015 and now transfers the production to its Broadway house, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The same sense of intimacy survives in the new venue, which has been reconfigured to provide seating for nearly 200 audience members on both sides of a narrow, practically bare strip of stage. The presentation remains perfectly suited to a delicate chamber piece that would probably be less effective in a larger-scale production.
Much of its impact can also be credited to the two performers who fully inhabit their flawed characters with an intense emotional immediacy. Both actors deliver superlative turns, even if Parker, as the woman who manages to insert herself into the older man’s life despite his closed-off ways developed over the course of a lifetime, sometimes proves deliberately annoying.
The two characters meet cute, in a London train station where Alex tends to periodically stop by to take a load off, when Georgie impulsively kisses him on the back of his neck. Deeply apologetic, she obliquely explains that he reminded her of a man, presumably her husband, who recently passed away.
But that explanation is not to be taken at face value, something that can be applied to pretty much everything Georgie says, including her description of her job as a waitress in an Islington restaurant that “sells a fusion of continental, North African and oriental food driven by a scientific determination to pursue culinary excellence to its highest level.” (See where the exhausting part comes in?)
Several days after parting ways, Georgie shows up unexpectedly at Alex’s butcher shop, having Googled him to determine his whereabouts. He’s initially aghast, complaining that his “privacy has been violated.” But he inevitably finds himself attracted to this beautiful woman 33 years his junior, who seems to want nothing more than to go on a date with him.
The pair soon winds up enjoying a blissful night together, the happiness of which is somewhat marred for Alex when Georgie reveals the true reason for her romantic pursuit. To say more would spoil the many plot twists, which include Georgie’s desire to reconnect with her estranged teenage son, who has decamped to New Jersey, of all places.
The play is to be appreciated less for its tangled, artificial plotting than for its sensitive and amusing portrayals of characters bearing heavy emotional baggage. The voluble, profanity-spouting Georgie might have been merely irritating as played by another actress. But Parker, exhibiting a more weathered version of the sultry charm she unveiled a quarter-century ago in Prelude to a Kiss, makes her indeed captivating. And Arndt, best known for his recurring roles on such television shows as The Practice and Boston Legal, is equally superb as the reclusive but still vital old man who has never married and conducts imaginary conversations with the sister who died when he was just a child.
Under the pitch-perfect direction of Mark Brokaw, who also guided Parker in her acclaimed turn in How I Learned to Drive, the two performers deliver deeply moving portrayals of these troubled figures, who despite all odds manage to find happiness together. You won’t believe a minute of what goes on in Heisenberg, but you’ll probably leave the theater with a goofy grin on your face nonetheless.
Cast: Mary-Louise Parker, Denis Arndt
Playwright: Simon Stephens
Director: Mark Brokaw
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Michael Krass
Lighting designer: Austin R. Smith
Sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Choreographer: Sam Pinkleton
Presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club