Perhaps uncertain about how it would be received, playwright Simon Stephen’s play Heisenberg opened off Broadway in 2015 before making to Broadway in 2016. Even though it had a run of less than three months, it garnered the actor Denis Arndt the coveted 2017 Tony award for best actor.
Here in Austin the role of Alex is being played by veteran actor Harvey Guion, whose acting career spans more than half a century. His protagonist in this 2-person play is Liz Beckham in the role of Georgie, and one cannot imagine any actress delivering a superior performance.
The play’s title derives from the famous Uncertainty Principle of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg. His name never intrudes in the dialogue, instead assuming the role known in ancient Greek theatre as the “God in the machine.” It is the unseen Heisenberg who pulls the strings, so that Alex and Georgie dance to his tune.
The borderline psychotic Georgie first tells Alex when they meet in London that she is an assassin, but then admits she is a waitress. A scene shortly following this has her admitting the ‘real’ truth that she works as a grade school receptionist. As the play progresses and the thrust of her dialog turns to finding her son, who has gone missing after having fled her by travelling to New Jersey, the audience seems to accept that what she says is true. But I kept wondering if she had a son at all.
“I watched him all the time,” Georgie says of her son. Here we see Heisenberg’s influence: in physics, the more accurately you know the position of a particle, the more uncertain becomes your knowledge of its speed or where it is going. Georgie herself utters these lines, and that the converse is also the case: “if you pay attention to where it’s going or how fast it’s moving you stop watching it properly.” Thus she watched her soon too closely, and lost him. A very witty expression of a physical principle in the hands of British playwright Stephen, who lives up to his reputation as a subtle dramatist.
Another subtle example occurs when she asks Alex for money to travel to Jersey to search for her son. She claims the thought had just come into her head. Alex questions her in rapid-fire fashion as to whether it really did just pop into her head. At each shot, she wavers between yes and no. Uncertainty of the first order: as he tries tries harder with each passing second to establish her position, the result changes.
Ultimately one might say Alex hooked up with Georgie because of the thrill of uncertainty. His life of routine and complacency collided with her spontaneity and impulsiveness giving us a May/December relationship to savour. Guion gives a marvellous portrayal of a 75-year-old British fellow who, even though he has snow on the roof, still has fire in the furnace.
If you are uncertain about going to the Zach Theatre to see this play, I suggest you go. Then decide if it was your cup of tea.
Photo by Kirk Tuck: Harvey Guion and Liz Beckham
Heisenberg is being performed until July 22, 2018.
Visit the website for tickets: www.zachtheater.org