By Ruth Ross
Although German theoretical physicist and pioneer in Quantum mechanics Werner Heisenberg is never mentioned in Simon Stephens’ play, Heisenberg, now onstage at Alliance Rep in Summit, his theoretical principle of uncertainty—the concept that the act of talking about a phenomenon changes the phenomenon—sure hangs over the proceedings, covering a period of six weeks, like the Sword of Damocles. For 90 minutes, we—and one of the characters in this two-hander—can never be sure what’s true and what’s not.
The first scene of Stephens’ play sets up a May-December relationship between two unlikely people: 40-something American ex-pat Georgie Burns and 75-year-old London butcher Alex Priest. The two meet in a train station when Georgie approaches Alex from behind and kisses him on the neck; she explains that her husband died 18 months before and she imagined that she saw him again in the person of Alex. It’s not long before she recants that story, offers another; tells him she’s a waitress at a fancy restaurant, only to confess to being a receptionist at a primary school; that she lives in upscale Islington when she does not. Principle of Uncertainty? You get the idea.
For 90-minutes, Georgie talks nonstop, changing details, cursing, revealing truths bit by bit until we (and Alex) don’t know what to believe. She’s a World Class fabricator/fantasist. In contrast, Alex is a staid gentleman whose last love affair was 40 years ago (she dumped him); “quite habitual,” Alex takes long walks, loves to tango and listen to classical music, and is prone to burst into tears for no apparent reason. A mismatched pair? Ya think?
For six scenes, stories shift, an unlikely romance blooms and a bombshell drops when the truth of Georgie’s pursuit of Alex is revealed (no spoilers). The success of the play’s equally uncertain dénouement depends on your capacity for hope.
David Christopher has brilliantly staged and directed Heisenberg, proving that, once again, Alliance Rep can take two characters, a bookcase full of props, two benches, a table and two chairs, and put on a play; the emphasis here is on the words. Kelly Maizenaski(left) is superbly exhausting as Georgie, awkwardly making unkind comments about Alex’s age, spinning a web of lies. After the story about missing her husband “on a cellular level,” we sympathize with her; Maizenaski works hard to make what could be an unlikeable character likeable.Talking almost nonstop, she adroitly manages to deliver the dialogue in a “convincing” manner.
As Alex, Christopher Gibbs (right) is adorably reticent; when he does speak, we know he has something important to say, and he does it credibly in an accent with a faint Irish lilt (his character spent his childhood in Ireland). Spare of gesture, wise yet naive, Gibbs’ Alex reveals himself little by little, never changing his story. That’s why it’s a hoot when he recites a very long list of the types of music he likes! And, his line about “paying attention to the spaces between the notes” just about sums up the play’s theme. Despite her changing stories and staccato delivery, Alex does just that, maybe seeing the real Georgie beneath the brittle veneer.
Once again, production values are excellent. Ed Pearson’s lighting suits the place and mood of each of the six scenes. Gordon Wiener’s lighting enhances each location, and David Munro has designed a multi-cubby bookcase to hold the great variety of props taken out and used by the two characters at various times in the play.
Despite the high-sounding scientific principle that guides Heisenberg, the play is ultimately about human relationships real, imagined and remembered. It’s a gem you won’t want to miss.
Heisenberg will be performed at Alliance Rep in the black box theater on the lower level of MONDO, 426 Springfield Ave., Summit, through September 29. For information and tickets, visit www.alliancerep.org.