Theatre Review: Heisenberg
HEISENBERG by Simon Stephens
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Manhattan Theatre Club:
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
Heisenberg is a theory dressed as a play. The two-character work by Simon Stephens, directed by Mark Brokaw and moved by Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC), from its small Off-Broadway theater to its larger Broadway house, uses a series of brief scenes of a burgeoning connection between a quirky woman and a taciturn older man to transfer Heisenberg’s mathematical Uncertainty Principle to the realm of human relationships. While charming and beautifully acted, the play relies more on stated aphorisms than moving, dynamic interaction. By resorting to tropes fast becoming standard in contemporary non-musical plays, it becomes remote, and unsatisfyingly predictable.
In England, an offbeat, outspoken woman, Georgie, ‘40s, confronts Alex, a man of 75, a plain-talking butcher whose shop is on the verge of failing. She tells him various false stories about herself, and eventually seduces him. The woman’s motivation is soon revealed: it is a financial one and while it causes momentary friction, the two team together to try to solve a family issue troubling her. Along the way, they joust verbally, going back and forth about their commitment to each other, the unknowability of motives, inconsistency of actions, the fluctuating nature of love.
The production is animated and pleasing, the dialogue crisp and fun. The actors, Mary-Louise Parker, well-known from TV’s Weeds, and many Broadway shows, and Dennis Arndt, comparatively unfamous, a mainstay of regional theater, are alive to each other, living in the moment, holding us there with them. Parker’s quirks and tics are a great advantage, producing many laughs, as Georgie is revealed as a woman whose eccentricities have alienated those closest to her. Arndt’s Alex is unaffected and blunt, a man unto himself, with a hidden loneliness that Georgie’s pursuit brings to the surface.
The characters engage and retreat, but no matter how much the actors try to share and relate, and the show employs sharp, clipped lighting and staging to goose it up, the story remains a mild and intellectual one. Georgie unconvincingly talks about the illusion of permanence in life and Alex has his own forced and prescribed notions of art—he is a music lover—and personality, but these declarations distance us from their tale rather than draw us in. The playwright seems to want to avoid the typical structure of plays, where the action builds progressively to a climax, but a work whose purpose is to evade cliché might put something equally compelling in its place. Here, we go round and about and end up…where? Out on the street after 80 minutes, heading for the train, as an audience having had a few thoughts but escaping a truly immersive, emotional theatrical experience.
The play’s crucial plot twist involving money had the potential to throw the characters for a loop, taking them into contentious, uncharted lands. But the dilemma is soon accepted, sloughed off and thrown to the side. The same is true of Georgie’s underlying fear that people, men in particular, will abandon her. The author seems to secretly want to focus on the painful lack of stability in the woman’s life, but he’s unwilling to put her sorrow on display. The difference in ages between the characters is treated as a bland joke rather than a piercing basis for joining, estrangement, and separation. Georgie and Alex banter but basically, throughout, they can deal. The man and woman’s lack of naked vulnerability and need, their cool controlled verbiage, gives us a description of a problem, but not the problem itself. It’s a play on paper, rather than on stage.
There is falseness in Heisenberg’s indirect drama. In life, despite endless talk of irony, people do feel big things, roil with tension and pain, loneliness, joy and exhilaration, even if it is not totally or effectively expressed. And they act on it. Watch the news: seemingly daily, people kill themselves and each other over love. Isn’t the portrayal of dispassionate remove kind of a lie? Isn’t the theater the place where the hard, tormenting emotions that tie us up can be dramatized, and so, voiced? Isn’t a liberating catharsis part of the purpose of the whole thing? Even the math theory seems jumbled. The characters in the play are consistent all the way through: Alex, easygoing and accepting; Georgie, demanding and egoistic. There’s nothing in the on-stage behavior that illustrates the malleability of people and personality, except conjecture. (In Heisenberg, the urge to be undemonstrably modern even extends to its name. While Georgie and Alex jaw about theory, the eponymous scientist is never mentioned; this follows a growing trend of writers and plays that feel it is corny to include the title in the dialogue.)
This circumvention of direct confrontation on stage, the attempt by contemporary playwrights to reject what they see as a bombastic past and make something new, detached/cool has become, oddly enough, commonplace and in itself expected and tired. As mentioned in my earlier reviews on this site, these are dire times for the non-musical Broadway play; most recent straight Broadway pieces, particularly American ones, are ninety minutes, one set, few characters, and tend to be more like slight, early drafts that need deepening and expanding in order to become fully realized. Something is obviously unsatisfactory in the approach; the audience is not responding. At the end of the summer of 2016, there was one (1!) non-musical play on Broadway, Tony Award winner The Humans. In the past, most of these modest-scale plays started in smaller Off-Broadway houses, and comfortably stayed there; but now, as in the production of Heisenberg, which was popular Off-Broadway at MTC’s City Center space in summer-fall 2015, any suggestion of success causes an awkward move to nicer digs. Anyway, the development of shorter, truncated plays, as well as limited runs—Heisenberg lasts only through mid-December—is the industry’s try at adapting and overcoming the problem, but it’s ongoing, and corrosive.
Having characters in Heisenberg and other new plays that don’t do much, who talk about issues rather than passionately act on them, dilutes the value and function of the whole dramatic art. Like the Modern Art movement of the ‘40s-60s, which led to Rothko’s paintings of one solid color, basically blank, theater may soon become wholly about Form, about itself, rather than Life. Plays are in danger of being self-reverential, insular, and uncommunicative, all but useless. The question invariably arises: where do we go from here? One suggestion is to shift completely to the kind of easily accessible absurdist vulgarity that made 2015’s Hand to God a success; it’s the most produced play around the country this year. But Heisenberg and its author, many playwrights and plays, are cultured and essentially staid. The next answer would then have to be: go back. To larger, broader pieces of scope, sophistication, and beauty, the grandeur that made great plays of the past. But can 21st century playwrights do it?
Veteran director Brokaw’s handling of the actors is expert. His overall take—the actors move the few spare set elements around themselves, lights blast on and off to signify shifts in time and place, the audience at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, MTC’s Broadway space, is seated both in the house and on-stage—aims for electricity and pace. This helps, but the scheme ultimately falls short. Playwright Simon Stephens has had much recent success. His adaptation of Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime won The Tony and ran 800 performances. Blackbird was an intense play both on and off Broadway. Perhaps producing the minor Heisenberg is a thank-you for his spate of major hits.
Plays with a scientific background have been abundant in the past ten to twenty years. Proof, by David Auburn, also with Mary-Louise Parker, was huge in the 2000s, as was Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn. Constellations, by Nick Payne, with Jake Gyllenhaal, was briefly on Broadway last year, and in smaller theaters, Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Project, and The How And The Why, by Sarah Treem, et al, received recognition. The Alfred P. Sloane Foundation has been commissioning companies, including MTC, to create plays about science for fifteen years. Anything that brings monetary support to new theater works is good and no one can deny we live in an age dominated by technology. The topic is valid, but plays can’t be as analytical as scientific practice. There is no soul in the machine. The origin, and the soul, of theater, lies within the depiction of the efforts of human beings, those running parallel to science; acts wilder, messier, and more transformative than any apparatus or theory. Theater deals with the stuff science cannot solve. The first plays were performed from little wooden wagons driven around the countryside and towns, for illiterate people longing for meaning, enjoyment, and solace. Perhaps our theater can respond to this idea: we haven’t really learned all that much; we still hurt; we’re still searching.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, at the 2016 NY International Fringe Festival.