When we spoke to director Robert Benedetti about Heisenberg a few weeks ago, he said that among the reasons he chose the show was that it was light-hearted. He wanted to balance out the heaviness of his last show, Quality of Life, and end the New Mexico Actors Lab season on a buoyant note. Imagine SFR's surprise, then, when—despite many hearty laughs—we were left deeply unsettled by Heisenberg. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly not what we were expecting.
Heisenberg follows Georgie, a 42-year-old American woman living in London, as she relentlessly and amorously pursues Alex, a 75-year-old native Londoner. Georgie, here played by an appropriately awkward Debrianna Mansini, is a quintessential American hot mess with more than a smattering of sociopathic tendencies. Alex, brought to life by Jonathan Richards, is a butcher in the twilight of his life, living an existence of quiet desperation. Until Georgie shows up, that is. Then that desperation gets a little louder.
The descriptions we'd read of this show were that it was about an intergenerational relationship. Of course, "relationship" is a malleable term, but we were ready to see a story about two people who were established in their love for each other, working life out bit by bit. What we got instead was an explosion of a brand-new courtship (by the end of the play, the two have only known each other six weeks) and a long, hard look at who deserves love, and how much love they should then be allotted.
While the word-vomit-prone Georgie dominates the script (in the first two-thirds of the play she probably has 85 percent of the lines) and could get viewers uncomfortable enough to feign a bathroom break, it is Alex's calm demeanor that keeps the audience in their seats. Richards, as Alex, is truly fantastic. His face is kind and patient, and his matter-of-fact tone is perfect for the blue-collar butcher as he is romantically accosted by a woman nearly half his age.
Mansini's Georgie is insufferable and exhausting. And we don't mean that as a criticism—that is precisely how she is written—though we do, as the play progresses, wonder a bit what Alex could possibly see in her; a woman who admits to compulsively lying and overshares until we cringe. Still, Georgie's Julia Roberts-level smile lights up the stage, and when she finally gets Alex to open up about himself, she actually shuts up and listens for once.
In the beginning, we suspect Georgie is projecting supposedly fascinating qualities onto Alex. Until he really blossoms in the third scene, each of the characters are equally unappealing (Georgie because she won't shut up, Alex because he won't talk). Alex has no interest in discussing esoteric things (on feelings: "I feel my clothes. I feel the wind on my face. I don't feel. I fucking think.") and Georgie, while awkward and sometimes lacking confidence, also fancies her flaws charming (she actually does blurt out, "Do you find me exhausting but captivating?"—Alex simply stares at her in response).
As the show moves, however, the projection flips. Georgie seems completely shocked when, at dinner, she learns that Alex is indeed as interesting as she wants him to be. We suspect, by the end, that Alex is projecting his kindness and genuine goodness onto an undeserving Georgie.
There's an illuminating confession from Georgie in the fourth scene that took us by absolute surprise, so it's hard to discuss the intricacies of the couple's later interactions without rampant spoilers, but we are indeed left feeling pity for both characters. They each so badly want the other to be what they need, and we aren't sure, in the end, whether or not they get what they want.
While having a post-coital listen to Bach on vinyl, Alex tells Georgie: "Music doesn't exist in the notes. It exists in the space between the notes." It's a lesson we think the character of Georgie could bear to learn (read: shut the fuck up already), and one that Alex could bear to forget (read: speak up already).
The play, written by Simon Stephens, is fresh off Broadway (Benedetti told us he essentially badgered the rights-holders until he got permission to put it on). The intricacies of the dance between these characters, both in wordplay and in a literal tango, will undoubtedly mark this show as a classic to be performed for many years, and tangential references to scientific principles will keep even the particle physicists entertained. (A personal preference made this writer recoil a bit at the very end, but perhaps some folks just have a strong aversion to sentimentality.)
In the end, we don't know if either Georgie or Alex got what they were looking for—but we certainly did. We left unnerved, thoughtful and just a little bit sad; and isn't that the point of the theater?