That uncertain feeling
The uncertainty principle is one of the most famous (and probably misunderstood) ideas in physics,” Alok Jha wrote in a 2013 article in The Guardian. “It tells us that there is a fuzziness in nature, a fundamental limit to what we can know about the behavior of quantum particles and, therefore, the smallest scales of nature. Of these scales, the most we can hope for is to calculate probabilities for where things are and how they will behave.” For those prone to interpreting scientific theories in emotional terms, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is rife with possibility, easy to apply to the vagaries of human interaction, romantic relationships, and even the idea of dramatic structure. Playwright Simon Stephens toys with the blurry line between science and feelings in Heisenberg, his two-person, May-December meet-cute play in which the German physicist is never mentioned by name.
Heisenberg opened on Broadway in 2016 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, starring Mary-Louise Parker as the irrepressible Georgie and Denis Arndt as the more reticent Alex. We first see them in a train station just after Georgie has kissed Alex — who is a stranger to her — on the back of his neck. The narrative moves along on the momentum of their banter, much of which is very funny in its awkwardness, but where it is going is tough to predict. Arndt, a career actor who made his Broadway debut as Alex at age seventy-seven, was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance. He and Parker, who reprised the roles they played in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s well-received 2015 off-Broadway production of the play, had the luxury of developing their performances over a long period of time.
Thirty-four years ago, Arndt played Claudius in an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet that was directed by Robert Benedetti. Benedetti, who
has worked as a television and film producer, in regional theater, and in theater education, including as chairman of the acting program at Yale Drama School, now lives in Santa Fe and runs New Mexico Actors Lab. He directs Heisenberg, starring Debrianna Mansini as Georgie and Jonathan Richards as Alex, opening Thursday, July 13, at Teatro Paraguas Studios.
Benedetti was initially attracted to Heisenberg because of Arndt’s success with it, and he had enjoyed Stephens’ Tony Award-winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time .As in Night-Time, Heisenberg features characters who struggle with appropriate social interaction. Georgie, a forty-something American woman living in England, tends to reveal too much, while Alex is a quiet septuagenarian butcher who never married. “I was really struck by what a beautiful piece of writing it is — simple but layered — and what it has to say about the uncertainty of relationships,” Benedetti said. “If you know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going, and if you know where you’re going then you don’t know where you are. You can’t do both. And we’re not even certain where we are because Georgie is a compulsive liar — but not in a mean way.”
“I’ve known people like her in my life,” Mansini said. “She’s not malicious. She’s really smart, but she has no filter. She says right up front that she has a complete inability to control her own language. She’s a nonedited, very genuine person, which is an interesting challenge as an actor.”
Georgie curses constantly. It is never certain just when she will reveal that the last thing she said was a lie. She could be a con woman, or mentally ill, or just a bit untethered. We soon learn she has a son in New Jersey who refuses to talk to her. This estrangement obviously hurts her, though Stephens makes it easy to see how Georgie’s transitory relationship with reality could alienate an adult child. Alex, who has more life experience than Georgie or her son, is surprised by her time and again — and smitten. She asks him for an outrageous amount of money, invades his privacy, and generally acts like a steamroller, yet her wild charm beguiles him. And perhaps an adventure is what Alex needs. There is a screwball edge to Heisenberg, and the relationship depicted has been compared to the one between Katharine Hepburn as a flighty heiress and Cary Grant as a studious paleontologist in the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby. But the way Georgie undoes Alex, and how he holds fast to his boundaries even while going along with the things she wants, is more nuanced than a simple Hollywood realization that opposites attract.
I was really struck by what a beautiful piece of writing it is — simple but layered — and what it has to say about the uncertainty of relationships. — director Robert Benedetti
“Alex gets very upset when he realizes Georgie might have been, in a sense, scamming him,” Benedetti said. “And she is amazed when he shows up with the money — not expecting that he would, and not even that eager to take it at first. I find the ending of the play enormously touching. I always tear up. It sneaks up on me and I find myself starting to cry. It’s love that finally becomes the beacon that lets us know where we’re going.”
Heisenberg, presented by New Mexico Actors Lab Thursday, July 13, 7:30 p.m.; performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays–Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through July 30 Teatro Paraguas Studios, 3205 Calle Marie, 505-424-1601
$10 opening night, then $20 (discounts available), pay-what-you-wish Wednesdays; www. nmactorslab.com
Opposite page, Debrianna Mansini and Jonathan Richards, photo Robert Benedetti