Firstly, Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg is not a spinoff play about the Breaking Bad character Walter White’s alter-ego. But what it is turns out to be is just as enticing, even if it might not sound so. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time playwright, returning to the more intimate mode of plays such as Bluebird and Harper Regan, tells the simple story of two perfect strangers who embark on an affair and find their lives changes irrevocably. You’ve seen this one before, you say? Not like this one, you haven’t.
Mark Brokaw’s simple, succinct production (a few tables and chairs with audience members on two sides and that’s it) frames the chance encounter of Georgie Burns (Mary-Louise Parker) and Alex Priest (Denis Arndt) at a British railway station. He’s a reserved 75 year-old butcher, she’s 33 years younger and full of boundless, paroxysmal energy. Georgie finds herself mysteriously drawn to the septuagenarian Alex, and via her tidal wave bursts of verbal (and often profane) dexterity, attempts to mentally flesh out the older man’s life-to-date as they explore meals, sex, work and eventually a bizarrely-negotiated overseas trip that tests how far they’re willing to go for each other while Georgie attempts to reconnect to her estranged teen son.
Stephens obviously has a great affinity for persons whose minds work faster than their filters, and like the troubled boy protagonist of Curious Incident, Georgie is a marvelous creation: a wide-eyed, brutally honest id most of us would like to fully embody…but only some of the time—think Ally Sheedy’s Breakfast Club moppet if she grew up to roam the U.K. in middle age. It should be no secret to Parker’s fans that she thrives in adventurous material such as this (the actress’s thrillingly unusual acting choices always seem to be a poor match with classical material), and what results is her best stage role since her stunning, Tony-winning turn in 2000’s Proof. Also, as with her best roles, she is evenly matched with a solid, more somber male counterpart (i.e. David Morse in How I Learned to Drive, Larry Bryggman in Proof) who only makes her more illuminating. Arndt, a longtime television character actor, etches out a lovely portrait of light regret and casual aging; it’s not difficult at all to see why Georgie is drawn to him. (Though the fact that the man’s last name is Priest can’t possibly be an accident—quite possibly a too on-the-nose detail here.)
Heisenberg—which presumably takes its title from the famous uncertainty principle stating that nothing has an exact trajectory—is remarkably filled-in for an 80-minute drama, likely due to Stephens’ full commitment to these lost souls through his tough, bracing writing style (“I like your skin. I like all its folds. It smells of beer and tobacco and tea. That’s amazing to me. It’s like Europe.”) But Parker ignites his every word, and her unmistakable allure even seems to have subconsciously informed the scribe. “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?”, asks Georgie at one point. This critic’s response: a tiny bit of the former (in a good way), and a whole great big lot of the latter. A–