The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (1927) states that neither the position nor velocity of an object can be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory. Now apply that to gauging the substance and honesty of an extremely mercurial pairing.
This has to be one of the most unlikely, yet deeply convincing couples you’ll ever see on stage; a romantic, highly sexual relationship that slowly evolves despite reticence, red flags and trap doors at every turn. Playwright Simon Stephens (who wrote Harper Regan and adapted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) has created two marvelous characters who make what could have been yet another quirky-girl-gets-repressed- man-to-open-up scenario into something eminently richer and more satisfying. This is not a comedy per se, but you will laugh. A lot.
When we meet Georgie Burns (Mary-Louise Parker) in her unkempt, early 40s, she’s just kissed the back of the neck of tucked, pressed, 75 year-old Alex Priest (Denis Arndt), a complete stranger. He jerks away. The young woman explains that, unthinking, she took Alex for her husband who’s been dead 18 months, describes his death, then segues to reflections on her honeymoon. “I miss every single bit of him, like on a cellular level.” Despite the fact neither character is traveling or meeting anyone, both are in a train station.
Georgie introduces herself, glomming onto Alex. “Can I take your photo?” “No.” “Are you a celebrity or a very arrogant person who puts yourself above people like me?” She’s aggressive to the point of belligerence, needy, and an unfiltered motor-mouth. He’s taciturn and wary. Georgie’s “an assassin” no, “a waitress,” who can, she declares read people. When Alex says he’s a butcher, she argues in disbelief. He exits.
Next thing we know (the play is episodic), she’s tracked him down at his shop. Alex finds this somewhat alarming. It turns out what little he’s shared about himself and his at-face-value banal life, is true, whereas everything she’s told him is a lie. Georgie does that. Parker’s splendid deliverance of often rapidly contradictory responses gives such equal credence to both, like Alex, we’re often left wondering.
While it’s true this is no ordinary butcher-his favorite thing about the profession he tells her, is the way animals join together at their seams, Alex is also not the cultured, romantic figure Georgie seems to presume. He leads a quiet, long celibate life and has never traveled. She presses on, “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?… I like your fingers…your eyes… You should take me out…”
Probably never having done a spontaneous thing in his life, he does take her out. At the restaurant, Georgie emits a head-turning scream when she learns Alex’s age. “You’re unbelievably old!’ (He looks terrific.) She nervously giggles and apologizes. “Don’t apologize. It’s surprisingly nice watching you giggle.” Can you hear the worm turning?
The heroine is obsessed with finding her son who has taken off to the United States. Alex plans to sell his shop. With uncertain futures, they make joyous love. Afterglow is adult, in iconoclastic character and beautifully dramatized. Georgie has a favor to ask. A BIG favor. Was it premeditated? Has Alex been used? Does he care? Both their lives radically change in unexpected ways. We’re left awash in possibility with no promise of success.
It’s fairly impossible to imagine anyone other than Mary-Louise Parker in this role. Her signature ability to communicate in start/stop/pause/stumble/rush/retract/outbreak sentences –without ever straying from character, has never been given more leeway. That the artist makes Georgie appealing even when annoying or insulting helps us understand Alex’s reaction. Timing is impeccable, physical acting perfection.
In his Broadway Debut at 77, Denis Arndt becomes a surprising leading man. The attractive, long-limbed actor is so compelling when silent, it’s sometimes difficult to pull one’s gaze away. Completely believable as a practical shopkeeper with few expectations, his character’s conservative, halting reaction to Georgie’s insidious seduction is a constant, low key delight.
Director Mark Brokow has a successful track record with characters. Here he presents two extremely different people with both solid specifics and finesse. Use of only metal chairs and tables is remarkably effective, even as a bed. (Alex’s entrance into said bed is sublime.) Georgie’s intermittent flailing never goes over the top. The graceful ending is a brief master class. Pacing is exquisite.
Note: I’m sorry, but I can find no reason to put audience bleachers on the stage facing the rest of us except to garner more money. Much of the time when actors’ facial expressions are paramount, we see only profiles. And it’s distracting.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
Heisenberg by Simon Stephens
Directed by Mark Brokow
Through December 11, 2016
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street