From the moment she opens her mouth in the first scene of Heisenberg, Simon Stephens’ new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Mary-Louise Parker lights an unquenchable fire that blazes through the play’s brief run-time. Her portrayal of Georgie, a 42-year-old woman flailing at a moment of crisis, is manic and exhausting, but grounded in the voice and features of a human being and not a stage caricature. A pro at detached, deadpan roles, Parker here uses her limbs, every muscle in her face, and the full range of her vocal chords to bring Georgie’s anguish bursting through the surface. The result is thrilling; Parker suffuses the text with empathy and pathos.
And what text it is. It is no coincidence that such a performance is born of a role written with such inhabitable nooks and crannies. Stephens has crafted a character damaged and emotionally wrought, but he avoids passivity. Georgie is able to embrace her autonomy regardless of her emotional wounds.
Listen to the play’s final exchange – she craves control and agency and values the ability to dictate where her life goes. Georgie does not play the victim of her circumstances.
I’m being vague, only to preserve the thrill of discovering this play as it unfolds. Heisenberg begins in a train station shortly after Georgie plants a kiss on the neck of a stranger. This stranger is Alex Priest (Denis Arndt), a 75-year-old Irish butcher transplanted to London. It’s somewhat of a meet-cute, but Alex is resistant because of the age difference and his reserved personality is at odds with Georgie’s blunt way of expressing herself. Georgie arrives at Alex’s shop five days later and reveals that almost everything she told him was a lie. With this admission, what once was a woman who seemed a little quirky and strange (nothing we haven’t seen in a romantic comedy before) becomes someone much more complex. Stephens sets up a lighthearted May-December romance in the first scene and turns this on its head as Georgie reveals more and more of herself to Alex. Georgie’s lies unsettle and pain Alex, just as he was beginning to trust and open himself to her.
Arndt plays Alex with a quiet dignity and a deep spiritual well. Alex communicates with a sister who died when he was young, listens to music for “the spaces between the notes,” and admits that he sometimes cries for no reason at all. Where Georgie is light, Alex is heavy.
There is a false dichotomy that exists in the discussion of plays like this where one role is “showy” and one role is not, leaving some to believe the less verbal role is not as interesting or dynamic. Arndt is an excellent example of this opinion holding no water; his portrayal is, like Alex’s love of music, more about the spaces between his words than the actual words themselves. When Stephens does give Alex some extended moments to speak, Arndt imbues them with an unadorned honesty that allows us into the center of this person.
As in the off-Broadway run last year, Mark Brokaw’s production of Heisenberg places the actors in a small strip of playing space flanked by two seating sections that face each other. Taking the audience from one unified mass in the proscenium theatre and splitting them in this traverse staging creates an opposition, much like that which occurs in the play. The audience becomes two bodies, two characters pushing against each other, paralleling the tensions created by Stephens. In its Broadway transfer, Heisenberg retains the feeling it had in the tiny underground theatre in which it began its American life. But it has adjusted to its larger digs and grown into an even richer production than it was before. The actual playing space is similar in size, but the new vastness above and around the characters emphasizes their isolated loneliness and their disparity from the larger world.
The stage is almost entirely bare. There are a couple of tables and chairs. Parker has a handbag she throws to the ground. She nibbles on a chocolate bar and eats a portable rice pudding. The scarcity of their surroundings makes every action the two characters perform stand out in stark contrast. Parker removes her shoes in one scene transition and, later, during the scene, Arndt gently picks them up and puts them on a chair. This seemingly inconsequential act becomes an event and informs his character. The play is filled with light touches like this, but most importantly, the staging and design give the actors space and room to breathe. Though Georgie speaks at a rapid clip, the play does not travel in this rhythm; every one of its 80 minutes feels warranted and necessary.
Pushed along and anchored by Parker and Arndt, respectively, this two-hander is unlike many plays seen on Broadway. Its focus is squared tightly, telling a small story in rich detail with vivid, memorable performances.