First let’s deal with the title, Heisenberg. Werner Heisenberg was a famed German physicist who came to prominence in the 1920s with his breakthrough papers on quantum mechanics that posit that there are limits to what can be known about the nature of atomic structure. This is often referred to as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which —to abase a great, profound theory—means there is a lot that simply cannot be known about atomic structures and values. Playwright Simon Stephens has given his play, Heisenberg, a provocative title that pushed this commentator to dip into Wikipedia to know more about a play that is, at its core, a romantic comedy about two of the most unlikely people, who meet by random chance and form a relationship. There is no way to know for certain the true depth or breadth or intensity of the evolving passion, only that it is real and terrifically affecting.
On a train platform in London, Georgie Burns (the always-effervescent Mary-Louise Parker) strikes up a conversation with Alex Priest (Denis Arndt, the absolute master of internalized passion). Georgie, a youngish woman of forty-two, is a stream of consciousness motor mouth who verbalizes whatever crosses her mind. She is always in motion, always talking. She strikes up a monologue, too complex and scattergun to describe here, directed at Alex, who eventually replies, “Why are you talking to me?” Obviously, Georgie has a need. She presses Alex for information and he reveals that he is a butcher, that he is a bachelor, and that he is seventy-five years old. How this oddest of odd couples develop into lovers and lurch off on a quest is the eighty-minutes traffic of the Taper Forum stage.
Denis Arndt, Tony Award nominated for Lead Actor in a Play for his Broadway performance as Alex, dominates the stage with the quiet power of his formidable charisma. His character arc goes from deeply introspective to a glowing joy. Ms. Parker sustains her inexhaustible energy moment-to-moment throughout the play with a vast repertoire of attitudes and emotions, carrying the comedy, as well as finding moments of brief introspection and rueful regret. She is a tour-de-force powerhouse.
For this play, the Mark Taper Forum is configured in a pseudo-theatre-in-the-round with five rows of seats facing the rising auditorium, with a long stage set up between. This configuration is actually more akin to the tennis-court style of staging. The performance platform is black and the only scenic elements are two chairs and two long tables that the two principals push around between scenes acting as their own stagehands. I like the Brechtian honesty of that—let’s not forget that we are seeing a play.
There is one difficulty with the show. It is occasionally hard to understand the dialogue, especially that of Ms. Parker, whose vivacious character speaks rapidly and sometimes indistinctly. This may be more of a problem with seat locations in the back rows of the upper tiers, and it may also be that the characters often face each other. It is a small problem in an otherwise stellar performance.
Heisenberg, astutely directed by Mark Brokaw, runs through August 6 at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center in Down Town Los Angeles.