British playwright Simon Stephens' Heisenberg tracks the ups and downs in the relationship of an American woman in her 40s and an Irishman in his 70s. First produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2015 and later remounted on Broadway, the play shares its appellation with physicist and 1932 Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg was most famous for his Uncertainty Principle, which posits limitations to our understanding of the dynamics of matter. Stephens clearly had in mind a parallel between Heisenberg’s theory and the peculiar pas de deux between the characters in his two-hander, each alienated in their own way but striving, in various degrees, to relate.
Stories about the misery of the lonesome and disaffected are the crux of many plays, and their success often rests with how interesting their characters might be. Heisenberg, transplanted to the Mark Taper Forum with the original cast, Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt, and under its original director, Mark Brokaw, underwhelmed me from the start.
My main issue is with Parker’s rendering of the American woman, Georgie — representative of those annoying people who, having no aim or purpose, devote their otherwise directionless energy to cultivating an eccentricity for display to others. This character drives the action, but she does so with a tedious sameness. Add to that Brokaw’s theater-in-the-round staging, which forced me to muse on the actors’ profiles when I longed to view their faces, and I was tapping my foot till curtain time.
Complete strangers, Georgie and Alex (Arndt) meet in a metro station after Georgie approaches Alex and spontaneously kisses him on the neck. Reticent and soft-spoken but with an innate dignity, Alex isn’t the sort of man most people are likely to notice — which makes him a perfect target for Georgie, who’s looking for someone to give her their undivided attention. After their initial meeting, Georgie tracks Alex down in his London East End butcher shop and continues her efforts to probe his reserve and sexually entice him, which she eventually succeeds in doing.
By design, Heisenberg is a talky piece, which makes it all the more important for its characters to be engaging enough to watch and to listen to. Arndt makes the most of what the playwright has given him, and his taciturn Alex deepens and enriches as we get to know him. But Parker’s detached posturing (reminiscent of her portrayal of Nancy on Weeds), in tandem with the odd, bleating way she delivers many of her lines, is counter-effective and makes you not care a hoot about her. Where was the director in this? His lack of oversight, if that’s what you kindly want to call it, delivers a piece that’s an 80-minute slog.
Heisenberg, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Aug. 6. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.