Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt are a match made in the heavens, as you’ll see if you get the chance to observe Heisenberg, the marvelous brief play having its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s tiny experimental Stage II. This work, commissioned by MTC before Simon Stephens’ The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time became a scintillating Broadway hit (and contender for the Best Play Tony Award on Sunday night) is the second MTC romantic comedy this season with roots in hifalutin scientific mumbo jumbo (the first was Nick Payne’s slight Constellations, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson). Unlike that play, however, Werner Heisenberg’s emanations on quantum physics, uncertainty and the impact of observation on the observed are never mentioned in the play bearing his name, for which we can be most thankful. The pleasure, and it is nearly boundless, is invested entirely in our simple presence.
In a London rail station, Georgie Burns (Parker) has impetuously planted a kiss on the neck of Alex Priest (Arndt), a much older man clearly not keen on impetuous acts and seemingly impervious to Georgie’s insistent attempts at connecting. But, very much in the manner of a ’30s screwball comedy, this dizzy ditzy dame will not be deterred, and through a combination of guile and wile, her come-on eventually proves irresistible to the modest butcher and lifelong bachelor who becomes her target.
I use that word intentionally, for Stephens tosses the question of larceny into the heady stew of Georgie and Alex’s enchanting entanglement. Not exactly in the sense of film noir — there’s no coy mixing of genres here — because Georgie is so deliciously upfront about her true intentions despite a propensity for fabulation regarding the details of her life. Instead, Stephens seems intent on taking every cliche of the August-December love affair, observing it with micro-clarity, and then watching it change form under his authorial eye into something fresh and emotionally resonant.
He is blessed with actors at the top of their form (and it’s great to have Parker back in her best role since Proof) and the incisive direction of Mark Brokaw. The production, designed by Mark Wendland (set) and Donald Holder (lighting) is so bare-bones as to seem non-existant: an all-but-empty playing area in which the actors move a couple of nondescript gurneys that will suggest a terminal, a bedroom, a hotel room in New Jersey. The acting is similarly stripped bare as, in the exquisitely calibrated performances, Alex’s initial imperturbableness gives way to Georgie’s growingly poignant persistence. Not since Tom Stoppard’s underappreciated Hapgood has Dr. Heisenberg’s unsettling theory of random action and its consequences been given such a vital airing. The atmosphere around Heisenberg is charged with more electricity than Ben Franklin ever dreamed of.