A Lonely Man's World Gets Upended In 'Heisenberg' at ACT
by Jay Barmann
Knowing that Simon Stephens, the playwright who adapted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for the stage, was the man behind the latest offering at ACT led me to make some assumptions about the style of what I was about to see. But Heisenberg, Stephens' quiet, two-person dramedy that was staged at New York's Manhattan Theater Club in 2015 with Mary-Louise Parker in the lead role of Georgie, may only have kinship with Curious Incident in that it's about isolation, and how isolated people cope when that isolation is challenged.
Otherwise, this is a quirky, unremarkable sort of two-hander romance centering on an unconventional, possibly manic heroine (played here by Sarah Grace Wilson), and a staid, older butcher named Alex (played by ACT and CalShakes vet James Carpenter). Georgie is American, and Alex is British, with a Scottish twang to his accent, and they meet one day on a train platform when Georgie kisses Alex on the neck from behind, saying she mistook him for someone else, a husband who's been dead for some time. What follows is an unpredictable collision of two characters with seemingly nothing in common, and while Stephens' dialogue has a riveting if uncomfortable rhythm to it, the impression of his characters is uneven. Alex seems increasingly drawn to Georgie, a decidedly weird and dishonest woman who turns out to have ulterior motives as well, and Georgie seems drawn to Alex but it's never really clear when or if her ulterior motives fall away.
Some of that lack of clarity may come in the direction by Hal Brooks, which feels less than smooth in its use of the stage -- though the spare and modular set design by Alexander V. Nichols deserves high praise. But the biggest weak spot in this production is Wilson's performance. Her interpretation of Georgie is forced, jerky, and almost entirely unlikable, and given that half the action depends on her, and that the play ultimately tries to bring these two characters closer, it becomes impossible to believe that Alex would ever be duped by or attracted to this woman. (And though I did not see the New York production, it's easy to imagine that this role came across with a great deal more subtlety in the hands of Parker, who has made a career of finding empathy for flawed and difficult characters, and certainly the NY Times thought so.)
Carpenter's performance, meanwhile, is a good deal more subtle and believable, though the accent at times becomes more a distraction than an asset.
I can see how Stephens attempted to craft a romantic storyline where romance itself is undermined by human failings and weakness, and in the end those things perhaps don't matter when two people find each other. (This in itself isn't exactly a unique undertaking.) But a two-person play can be hard to swallow when the two actors don't feel well matched.
Heisenberg plays through April 8 at the Geary Theater. Find tickets here.