Simon Stephen’s play Heisenberg could be a romantic comedy. It certainly seems like it should be. Two strangers meet in a park, embark on a discovery of the other’s queer realities and seem to come into an affectionate, surprising awakening of a new brilliant relationship. It’s the age old story of manic pixie dream girl meeting the lonely man whom she can help to get out of his rut and live a little! Or is it!?
What I liked about this story is that it doesn’t seem so buttoned-up. The manic pixie dream girl is extremely manic, a compulsive liar and wrapped up with an actual agenda. This dream girl has goals! And the man whom she is musing, well, he is too old. A third act wanderer whose whims might have some musicality, but whose instrument is not so easily still played. They are basically two plagued clowns who are destitute thanks to their permanent misgivings. He is plagued by age, and she is plagued by turbulence. It makes this romantic comedy much more tragic, much more stuck with wanting resolution rather than happy ending; much more Waiting for Godot than Nora Ephron.
I liked this play quite a bit, because of its powerhouse performances. It’s a very dressed-down drama. The storyline is contiguous. It doesn’t have flashbacks or supernatural elements. It’s for the most part straightforward with a minimal non-distracting set. Director Tracy Brigden does such an amazing job of allowing actors to hone their artisanal craft in a distilled environment. Truly, this is a showcase of the subtle nuance of two pensive characters delivering punchy wit while engrossing so much complicated animosity within their inner dialogue. And even though much of the play is mulling, discussing, coming to know a person for their personal depth; it’s not without action. There is constant movement. The staging creates perplexing mini-dramas, built upon the stances and the body language which the early and middle stages of romance seem to imbue. It’s all about subtext and the actors truly lead the audience on their journey, allowing us to see so much of what’s not being said.
Robin Abramson as Georgie Burns smacks you with her character from her first bit of dialogue. Abramson has an uncanny ability to harness the magic of Georgie’s mania and slough it out of her, expelling rants of dialogue and landing blunt jokes or observations with cruel, but actualizing impact. Her emotional energy takes you into that moment, caught between exhaustion and fascination; when you realize the person you are talking to is mad, but carries with them the wisdom of a certain brand of free thought.
This provokes Anthony Heald’s much more subtle performance as Alex, the septuagenarian Irish butcher who slowly becomes infatuated with Georgie Burns. Heald has the restraint within his speech and performance to hold so much in withholding. The energy is absorbed by Abramson’s character so that the comic play is to do less. He is the straight man to her comic clown, but within that dynamic, he holds so much emotion at the hilt. So that when an onerous ‘fuck’ or an explosion of insight, “I don’t feel. I fucking think!” comes out, it surprises.
This play inspects the relationship between the straight clown and the comic clown. Only it does so through the lens of the lonely man and the manic woman. It is a startling investigation into the tragedy of loneliness. The fascinating element is the ambiguity of its resolution. Like the play’s title, Heisenberg (which isn’t even mentioned in the play, thank god, as it allows the meaning to be derived rather than bonked on the nose) settles itself in the uncertainty of two endemic people trying to find solace in the other’s spirit. What dispels this illusion from being realized is that frantic state of all living things. We are not settled archetypes, but swelled evolving beings hoping for some kind of resolution to just settle out the bitter end.
The negotiation of love between a chaotic and a despondent is an exercise in controlling nature. To watch the craft of this formation of what-could-be-love is irresistibly tantalizing: to hope two people make it work in such a sad world, with sad mortalities and a sad history. It makes you want. This play delivers. It has such updrafts of hopeful, intelligent sentiment. Such startling grabs at catharsis, like characters really unfolding as their spontaneous bouts of crying lead you to understand the horrifically tragic plight of their destiny.
But this play only sees itself for what it is, a temporary emotional impact. It is the tragedy of any resolution being only momentary and a study of the impact of people who can’t change themselves, despite changing, aging, becoming more engrossed in the steady hopelessness of trying; all while trying to find love. It’s bittersweet. It’s lovely. I found it sad, but I think that changes with every viewing. At least, I think that should be the point.
Heisenberg runs at the Pittsburgh Public Theater through April 8. For tickets and more information click here.
Photos by Michael Henninger
Categories: Archived Reviews