Theater Review: Two Characters in Need of Close Tracking

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2018

It’s important to preface this review by stating that I am emphatically not a fan of stories premised on the age-old arc of man-meets-woman, woman-really-shakes-things-up-for-man, by-the-way-man-is-several-decades-woman’s-senior.

Maybe it’s because I’m a square. Maybe it’s because the characters almost always tend toward the tropey — he’s broody and mostly dead inside; she’s delightfully quirky but woefully under-realized.

Georgie Burns, one of two characters in Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg, sums it up when she tells Alexander Priest, her soon-to-be-lover, “You’re not so much a creature of routine as a psychopathic raging monster of it.” She grins.

“And then I come along.”

That said, there are a few things that elevate Heisenberg, currently in production at the Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, from the flatness of its stereotypes. At the top of the list is the dialogue, which is smart and self-aware, often surprising, sometimes embarrassing in its honesty. The finely tuned acting, and strong directing by Bill Coons, creates a warmth between the two characters that, as they come to see each other clearly, fairly crackles.

The play takes its title from the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who in 1927 posited the “uncertainty principle.” It states that the more closely you measure a particle’s position in space, the more its exact velocity will elude you. The opposite is also true: If you’re correctly tracking how fast the particle is moving, you cannot determine where, precisely, it is. What’s the better blind spot — in physics, in love, in the theater?

Our unlikely couple meets at a London train station, where 42-year-old Georgie (Carey Urban), a fiery, filterless American with a mouth like a sailor, sneaks up and plants a kiss on the reticent 75-year-old butcher, Alex (Craig Braun). In the ensuing one-sided conversation almost everything she says is later revealed to be a lie.

Urban’s excellent portrayal of Georgie helps to save her character from falling into a manic-pixie-dreamgirl trap that might have snared a less-skilled performer: More than simply quirky, Georgie is a basket case whose eccentric behavior wavers between charming and alarming, and whose chaotic personality seems to drive away the people with whom she craves closeness. Alex seems stable by comparison, but comes with similarly heavy baggage.

Understandably, the soft-spoken Irishman makes tracks as soon as it is polite to do so. Next we see Georgie is when she pops up, stalker-style, at his butcher shop to flirt with him without buying meat. “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?” she demands, between pelting him with inane questions and laying bare her soul (for real this time?).

He acquiesces to dinner, over which he reveals his own troubled past. In one delightful riff, he also catalogs the many genres of music he likes, including classical, heavy metal, dubstep and rap. Great music “doesn’t exist in the notes,” he later tells her, but “in the spaces between the notes.” If you’re listening closely to the melody, rather than merely hearing, you can’t predict where it will go.

Heisenberg’s name is never spoken in the play, and his principle is referred to only briefly and vaguely. But the play’s title, by priming us to draw connections between Georgie and Alex’s relationship and the quantum mechanics of uncertainty, makes Heisenberg the second play in a row at Shaker Bridge that invites us to examine a romance through the lens of an elegant (if probably oversimplified) scientific theory.

The last was Nick Payne’s Constellations, which is more explicit and on-point in its exploration of how love unfolds in alternate universes. With Heisenberg I wonder, if all allusions to quantum physics were removed, whether it would change the emotional impact of the play in a meaningful way. In my view, Alex’s useful musical-note metaphor does more work for the story than its title.

If you’re not sure you could handle a passionate (albeit clothed) post-coital scene between a septuagenarian man and a woman 33 years his junior, Heisenberg might not be the play for you. However, if you think you can predict whether two deeply imperfect people can somehow, someway, be perfect for each other, then it’s worth watching closely to decide for yourself.

Shaker Bridge Theatre’s production of Heisenberg runs through March 11 in Enfield’s Whitney Hall. For show times and tickets ($16 to $35), visit shakerbridgetheatre.org.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.