Review: Love, trickery and the drama of uncertainty: It’s ‘Heisenberg’ at the Taper

Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker on the stark set of "Heisenberg" at the Mark Taper Forum.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Theater Critic

Since David Lean’s 1945 film “Brief Encounter,” no romantic has been able to look at a banal railway station as simply a commuter hub. Each connecting line poses new amorous possibilities; each departing train foreshadows the ending of a passion too intense for the workaday world.

British playwright Simon Stephens offers a novel variation of the old love-at-the-terminal story line in “Heisenberg,” a two-character play about the consequences of a chance encounter between a reserved older gentleman originally from Ireland and a rowdy middle-aged American woman living in London who slingshots herself into his life.

Directed by Mark Brokaw, this Manhattan Theatre Club production, which opened on Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum, has retained its lauded Broadway duo from last season, Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt. The play, a smaller offering by the Tony-winning adapter of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (coming to the Ahmanson Theatre in August) has the feeling of a contrived acting exercise, but the experience deepens as the actors probe their characters’ contradictory hearts.

Parker, playing a souped-up version of her trademark crazy-eyed waif, reprises her role as Georgie Burns, a character whose lack of a filter suggests a personality disorder in search of a diagnosis. Arndt, a veteran with a long record of unobtrusive excellence, rekindles his Tony-nominated performance as Alex Priest, a bookish butcher who doesn’t know what’s hit him when Georgie, a perfect stranger, plants a kiss on the back of his neck while he’s minding his own business at St. Pancras station.

Georgie, an unreliable self-dramatizer, won’t leave Alex alone after cold-cocking him with a smooch. Her excuse is that from the back he looked exactly like her dead husband. She tells him she’s an assassin, then backpedals and says she’s a waitress. Trampled by her monologue on exotic cuisine, Alex can only ask, “Why are you talking to me?”


Frenetic babbling turns to stalking when Georgie tracks down Alex’s butcher shop and pays a visit with no intention of buying meat. Alex seems tempted to call the police, but it’s not every day that a woman 33 years his junior flirts with him. He stands his ground heroically in the face of her verbal torrent.

“Do you find me exhausting but captivating?” Georgie asks in a line that Parker, an expert in alluring eccentrics, might consider putting on her acting résumé. What better way to sum up the gallery of half-cracked women who have brought her a Tony (“Proof”), an Emmy (“Angels in America”) and TV fame (“Weeds”)?

Staged with the audience seated on opposite sides of a long platform furnished only with a couple of chairs and tables, “Heisenberg” can seem both placeless and rootless in the early going. The only realism that matters here is the inner terrain of the characters. Parker doesn’t see lamb chops when she stares into the invisible case of Alex’s shop. Her character is working out her strategy. Part grifter, part lonely heart, Georgie clearly wants something from Alex. Dramatic suspense stems from her discovering, along with Alex, what exactly this might be.

The title of the play can’t help evoking Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. My library at home being woefully deficient in volumes on theoretical physics, I turned to the work of another British playwright, Michael Frayn, for guidance. Heisenberg appears as a character in Frayn’s “Copenhagen,” a drama that draws parallels between the uncertainty of particles and the uncertainty of thoughts. In a postscript, Frayn explains that “the more precisely you measure one variable … the less precise your measurement of the related variable can be.” Applying this “undeterminedness” (a better translation, in the author’s view, for what Heisenberg was getting at) to psychology, he provides a new framework for understanding playwrights with an interest in the “shifting and elusive” play of intentions “that can never be precisely established.”

Part grifter, part lonely heart, Georgie wants something from Alex. Dramatic suspense stems from her discovering, along with Alex, what exactly this may be.

The originality in Stephens’ play lies in the beautifully observed portrayal of a man who has arrived at a kind of Heisenberg-ian wisdom through a combination of tragic disappointments, solitary contemplation and a love of the world that has intensified as he has come to accept his own ephemerality in it. What does Alex want? He’s lived long enough and pondered deeply enough to appreciate the mysterious unpredictability of the ride.

Arndt lends poignant majesty to his character’s rediscovered sensuality. The strength and frailty of Alex’s body, the signs of age etched in his wrinkled skin, somehow make his romance with Georgie more credible. Arndt’s Alex is like an old orchid that has bloomed after light unexpectedly falls one last time on its branches.

Parker, who projects Georgie’s abrasive oddness at full throttle, serves the function of a theatrical catalyst for two-thirds of this 80-minute, intermissionless play. Georgie’s company is grating, and perhaps only Parker’s most hardcore fans will delight in the characterization. Clearer diction would help everyone. (Too many of Georgie’s words get lost in a vociferousness that at times sounds like a speech impediment.)

But Stephens purposely doesn’t want us to fall too easily for Georgie. Her rebarbative qualities make Alex’s forgiving nature all the more intriguing. And of course some of our frustration has to do with the impossibility of deciding whether Georgie is a con artist, a heartbroken woman, a mental case, or all of the above.

Alex’s character, however, isn’t the only one to undergo a sea change. “Heisenberg” is a study in the effects individuals can have on one another. Alex rejects the notion of fixed personalities. Self-possessed though not impermeable, he teaches Georgie through his own example a valuable lesson in the particle physics of love.

“Heisenberg” is perhaps most memorable, however, for the way it demonstrates how this dynamic science works on the level of performance. In an equation that operates more like a dance, Parker and Arndt prove that talent is expanded when those slippery variables of time and relativity are factored in.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦


Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Aug. 6 (call for exceptions)

Tickets: $25 to $95 (subject to change)

Info: (213) 628-2772 or

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission)

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