“HEISENBERG” at NYC’s Theaterlab: A Review

The word “Heisenberg” is never used in Simon Stephens’ brilliantly executed two-character play of the same name.  Although some pop culture enthusiasts may hear “Heisenberg” and think of the nickname for Bryan Cranston’s drug lord “Walter White” on TV’s Breaking Bad, Stephens’ comedic drama is ostensibly inspired by the revolutionary “Heisenberg uncertainty principle”. In its most simple form, that principle states that there is a fundamental limit to what one can know about a quantum system. For example: The more precisely one knows a particle’s position, the less one can know about its momentum– and vice versa.  Can the Heisenberg principle be used for human interaction as well? Well, yes!  When one person enters another’s space, a new dynamic is formed and both people change their behavior to accommodate it. This means that neither person truly knows the other in their “natural” setting; rather, they’re only known in the setting that includes THEM! Taken one step further: Do we really know and understand other people outside of the time when we are actually in a shared space? Hmmm….

In Heisenberg, which recently enjoyed a run at New York City’s Theaterlab, Irene Glezos and Albert Insinnia play two characters who find the dynamics of their lives changed after a chance meeting.  Those two characters are Georgie Burns (Glezos) and Alex Priest (Insinnia).   Alex is a 75-year-old butcher and self-proclaimed loner who has not been on holiday since childhood.  He is waiting at a London train station.  Alex isn’t waiting for a particular person, or even a train.  He’s just… waiting.  But, for what?  Entering both the stage and Alex’s life with the force of 2011’s Hurricane Irene is Georgie, a woman of indeterminate age and even more indeterminate motivation.  Georgie is loud, unafraid to hurl the “F” bomb without restraint, and clearly not the kind to follow Rick Springfield’s 1972 advice “Don’t talk to strangers!” After only a few moments, both Alex and we the audience wonder if Georgie may even be, shall we say, emotionally unstable.  The pair “officially” met (offstage) when Georgie planted an unexpected kiss on the back of Alex’ neck, launching what would become a rocky road to a truly idiosyncratic relationship.  As you may have guessed already, Georgie– with eyes as wide as saucers– does most of the talking (and talking… and talking… and talking…).  Georgie reveals a lot about her life, including the fact that she has a grown son living in New Jersey.  Oddly, the more she reveals, the less both Alex and the audience knows about her– largely because this lady often changes the details of her life at will.  Alex, meanwhile, remains reserved. Indeed, the first act of Heisenberg features a lot of conversation but very little actual communication.  What could have been an odd one-time meeting, however, continues when Georgie unexpectedly shows up at Alex’s butcher shop five days later for Act 2…   

Astonishingly, despite the differences in their personalities and ages, there is clearly SOMETHING happening between Georgie and Alex. The audience doesn’t even know how old Georgie is at first: As expertly played by Glezos, she may be 17 or 47 (To echo a line from one of the characters in the 1968 cult movie Secret Ceremony, “Crazy people never look their age!“.  We learn later that Georgie is 42.)   S-L-O-W-L-Y, Alex’ feelings for Georgie turn from bewilderment and discomfort to something else.  Indeed, the two lost souls who found each other eventually… go on a date! But just how far can their unorthodox relationship go?  

Aside from its charmingly offbeat plot, the appeal of Heisenberg lies in the performances of its two actors. On the sparse set at Theaterlab, the performers are indeed in sharp focus, and both Irene Glezos and Albert Insinnia command the intimate space very well.  Glezos’ Georgie is a character who, if played in a less nuanced style, could easily be completely unlikable.  This would stop the characters’ evolving relationship dead in its tracks.  But there is indeed something mysteriously appealing about Georgie.  She often seems aware of her own persona when she asks Alex questions like, “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?” In the less showy role, Insinnia’s Alex, who was seemingly content to live in his own world for a long time, gets to enjoy a more deliberate character arc: While it takes him a long time to warm up to Georgie’s quirky charms, the audience finally sees his turning point in the form of (Spoiler alert…!) a wide, genuine smile.  Alex will enjoy an even wider smile shortly afterward as the characters’ relationship moves into even more intimate territory… Later on, an unexpected and stunning confession by Georgie threatens to end their budding connection for good.  Astonishingly, it has the opposite effect, taking Heisenberg into a new and unexpected direction for both the characters and the audience.

How much does science — specifically, quantum physics– play a role in our interpersonal relationships?  Heisenberg doesn’t give the definitive answer to that question, nor should it have to.  Under the direction of Austin Pendleton, the piece proves to be both provocative and highly entertaining through its structure and through the appeal of its actors.  If Georgie and Alex were truly destined to be a relationship, they soon discover that they’ll have challenges to overcome.  The audience gets challenged as well– but for anyone in the theater that night, the rewards were indeed worth it. 

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