How much punier can plays get on Broadway? The director Mark Brokaw has found a way. It’s no longer enough that audiences are asked to sit through an evening that’s only 80 minutes sans intermission.
With Simon Stephens’ one-act “Heisenberg,” which opened Thursday, Brokaw has reduced the performing space at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to a narrow catwalk, with ten rows of stadium seating placed on the stage. Theatergoers face each other as Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt act and push around Mark Wendland’s minimal set, which consists of two tables and two chairs.
Parker plays a 43-year-old woman who stalks (there’s no other word) Arndt’s 75-year-old man, a butcher who’s very fit but hasn’t had sex with a woman in a very long time. Eventually, Georgie and Alex do make love, and we must assume that he ultimately submits because he’s been celibate since the 1950s.
Georgie chases her prey from a train station to his butcher shop. She also keeps throwing out insults that attack Alex’s age, demeanor, and talent. Some of her barbs are so audacious they’re funny. Clearly, Georgie is psychotic in a “Fatal Attraction” sort of way, only she isn’t. Which is the major twist of Stephens’ play, his follow-up to the very successful “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
Arndt is as amiable and dull while Parker is hyper and unhinged. He needs her eccentricity to reinvigorate his moribund life, if not his heartbeat. Alex says he likes being a butcher because animals have great “seams.” He also exhibits an extraordinarily eclectic interest in music. This guy listens to CDs the way some kids used to collect baseball cards. While Alex doesn’t deserve Georgie’s verbal abuse, you do wonder how she stays awake trying to make conversation with him.
“Heisenberg” is not one of those screwball comedies in which opposites attract. Georgie and Alex are wrong for each other, and so their happy ending emerges as false and forced. In the awkward finale, Stephens lifts from and paraphrases Paul Bowles. But what’s profound in “The Sheltering Sky” is merely sentimental when Georgie says, “How many more Christmases have you got in you? How many more times will you have an Easter egg?”
Alex is 75 and practically a recluse. When it comes to Easter eggs, Georgie can rest assured that Alex has none in his future.
The two characters don’t mention the physician Werner Heisenberg, who came up with the uncertainty principle. But here’s what Georgie says on the subject: “If you watch something closely enough you realize you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there…That’s actually scientifically been proved as the truth.”
Aren’t you terribly impressed when playwrights use physics to explain human behavior? It’s why “Heisenberg” might just be the most pretentious title ever attached to a play.