HEISENBERG: The Strangest Title since OLEANNA


With its current production of HEISENBERG, Manhattan Theatre Club has come up with a new idea that will save a good deal of money and give theatergoers less for theirs.

And not just because Simon Stephens’ new play is a mere two-person show.

MTC has filled the entire Friedman Theatre stage with stadium seating — which eliminates the need to design and build a set. Two tables and two chairs are all that are pressed into service. Oh, the company still has the expense of erecting those rows of seats, but think of all the extra income from the hundred or so extra ticket sales at each performance.

The concept doesn’t give much space for Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt to perform, but that’s an actual blessing. Theatergoers in “normal” seats usually prefer to have the action close to the lip of the stage. (All the better to see, my dear.) And of course, those seated on stage automatically have a bird’s eye view.

Is Stephens’ play worth watching? Well, it’s no CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, his Tony-winner that just closed after a nearly two-year run — the longest of the 335 non-musicals that have been produced on Broadway in this new millennium.

But a playwright almost always finds the next work that follows a Best Play Tony victory winds up getting lesser reviews and business. (And don’t forget that CURIOUS INCIDENT wasn’t all Stephens; he adapted it from Mark Haddon’s mystery novel.)

So some may be surprised that Stephens’ goals for HEISENBERG are more modest. Boy meets girl – or, more accurately, chatty woman meets reticent man. Most will grumble at having to search the ‘net in order to discover what that damned title means. It never comes up in the play, and instead of giving you the laborious answer here, I invite you to Google.)

Still, Stephens has completely succeeded in creating a full-bodied and red-blooded character for Mary-Louise Parker to play. Better still, you’ll have to go far and wide to find an actress who perfectly understands the woman she’s been given to play. How much director Mark Brokaw also had to do with this raging success we’ll never know, but Parker’s performance will be cherished through the play’s December 11th closing and fondly remembered at awards season.

At first, Georgie Burns looks so dazed and slack-jawed that she seems to have been just hit on the head by a 2-by-4. But when she starts an out-of-the-blue conversation with Alex Priest, we find she has a lot to say. A LOT. She seems as annoying as that person who’s sitting next to you on a plane and just HAS to talk when you don’t want to.

So not much time passes before Alex gives a look that says “Who IS this person?” That silence gives way to “Why are you talking to me?” Parker accepts her defeat graciously: “I’ll leave.” But like Vladimir and Estragon, she does not move – well, not enough. She soon finds reason to stay and divulges that she’s a widow with a 19-year-old son. (The lad doesn’t appear, but turns out to be vital to the plot.) As she babbles as no brook ever has, she interrupts herself to ask, “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?”

We always do in plays like this.

Alex makes his living as a butcher, but her impervious nature makes her seem butcher. He’s circumspect, metaphorically keeping his cards INSIDE his vest. Nevertheless, she gets out of him that he was orphaned at 17 and lost his sister at an early age, too. He’s had no romantic relationship since his twenties, so he’s either going to be impervious to her wiles or easy prey.

Once she tells him “You’re actually a lot more boring than you seem in real life” – in a matter-of-fact voice that has the detachment of a weather report – Arndt makes us see that Alex fears she’s right.

After that, Georgie knows the time is perfect for flattery. Arndt shows us that Alex’s heart is his Achilles heel. Stephens gets the trajectory right in getting him seduced little by little. Once he says “I like your giggle,” Parker subtly lets us see that she knows she’s unquestionably taken the upper hand.

But he’s 75 and she’s 42 — a hefty third-of-a-century age difference between them. And yet, when she calls him a “wily old fox,” we can see him conveniently dismissing the “old” and centering on the other two words.

There’s almost always a generation gap where music is involved. After she asks him what type of music he likes, he responds “all kinds.” To prove his point, he starts mentioning genres, and the list seems to be as long as the standby line at HAMILTON.

(But in a true slap in the face to Broadway, he doesn’t make a single mention of show music. Makes your blood boil? Well, I should say!)

Georgie comes up with “I do know that people will reject me so I try to behave in a way that just speeds the whole process up.” But she says it in such an off-the-cuff fashion that our hearts could go out to her … or we could start to believe that she’s played this game many, many times before. What DOES she want?

As it turns out, it’s something substantial. This free spirit could turn out to be quite expensive.

So we again say haven’t we seen this uptight-man/easygoing- woman play either on stage or on screen many, many times? But Stephens isn’t just giving us SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR or BAREFOOT IN THE PARK. He now takes the story in a different direction and makes a point that is sparkling new – and worth hearing.

Denis Arndt does well in a role where he spends an inordinate time reacting to this strange bird before him. He does have a few moments of his own, but most of the time, he’s blinking in astonishment at what he’s hearing.

So it’s Mary-Louise Parker’s show. That brings to mind what Robert Redford said when he was still young and hot. After he was asked why he wasn’t returning to Broadway, he could have pointed out that Hollywood bucks were substantially more rewarding than what New York would pay him. But he had another reason, too.

“In every script they’ve sent me,” Redford said, “all the guy winds up doing is looking at the girl with his hat in his hand and saying ‘You’re wild and you’re mad and I love you.’ You could just feel the critics getting ready to roll over and play dead for the girl.”

Which is what I’ve been doing, haven’t I?