Theater Review: 'Heisenberg,' Northern Stage | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Heisenberg,' Northern Stage


Published February 23, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Monica Orozco and Jamie Horton - COURTESY OF MARK WASHBURN
  • Courtesy Of Mark Washburn
  • Monica Orozco and Jamie Horton

The unlikely pairing is the basis for all romantic comedies, but the two people in Heisenberg don't stumble past their differences to discover that they're made for each other. Instead, the Northern Stage production of Simon Stephens' 2015 play muses on the unpredictability of attraction. Audiences usually see love long before a story's protagonists do, but here we're engrossed by improbability as the characters move closer, step by surprising step.

A 75-year-old man, who's spent his life largely alone, connects with a 42-year-old woman who has burned through numerous relationships. Georgie's impulsiveness may be the cause or the result of her inability to settle down. Alex's stolid and taciturn bearing may suit him perfectly or be a prison it's time to escape.

From a chance meeting in a train station and an oddball pursuit to a still-not-sure-of-the-rules date, Alex and Georgie are not on an obvious romantic trajectory. Stephens keeps the conversation funny and banishes romantic clichés by letting the characters speak with tart directness. And neither character loses track of the age difference, which asserts itself in every gesture, phrase and garment.

Most of the story takes place in London. Alex has moved there from Ireland, still sporting the accent in which he'll matter-of-factly say, "Aye yam" when Georgie questions his claim that he's a butcher. Georgie's from the U.S., and what has brought her to and kept her in London is a mystery, like every one of her biographical details.

The speech isn't stylized, but the world of the play is intensified by conversation a few notches up from typical getting-to-know-you banter. The characters don't feel their way; they blurt out what they're thinking. Georgie delivers a lot of nonstop chatter that ends in confrontational challenges. Alex is polite but also direct; his efforts to end probing conversation are comically deadpan.

The tone is delightfully unsettling, as characters drawn without the usual depth of backstory speak with uncommon candor, as if piping up from nowhere. And it's funny. At last Thursday night's preview performance, the audience percolated with laughter.

The play's title invokes 20th-century theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose uncertainty principle is often used as a metaphor for human behavior. While the concept actually applies only to subatomic particles, it's soothing to believe that science itself has found the reason it's difficult to know another person. The play never references Heisenberg directly, but Georgie sums up the concept when she says, "If you watch something closely enough, you realize you have no possible way of telling where it's going or how fast it's getting there."

Alex and Georgie watch each other closely, indeed. The audience is likewise riveted, and the story is aimed straight at romance. But how steamy, and how risky, should the director let it be? The script bends the madcap girl plus uptight guy formula until the characters seem capable of anything. They could light a true romantic bonfire or reveal only tender affection. Director Sarah Elizabeth Wansley chooses to cool the passion, running no risk of letting an old man seem foolish.

Wansley leans on the text's philosophical drift and emphasizes Alex's dignity while using Georgie's quirkiness to keep viewers on their toes. Above all, Wansley and the performers scrupulously avoid any hint of a gender-based power imbalance. In this production, Alex is too passive to flirt and Georgie is too nutty to be intimidated; she's almost too nutty to notice that she's not alone.

The play could accommodate real attraction, and two actors with chemistry could tear down the age barrier and unleash some serious desire. Wansley makes a jewel-box love story instead, where kisses and cuddles are safely exchanged.

Dialing down the romantic thermostat lets the dry humor take prominence, and here the actors excel. As Alex, Jamie Horton turns reticence into touching self-knowledge. He slowly doles out every morsel of a man quietly awakening to changes in his life. With luxurious concentration, Horton shows Alex absorbing each of Georgie's provocations, never letting the character's civility crumble. What does weaken is the notion that he couldn't possibly be worthy of so much of her attention. Horton gives us a character who can't resist the joy of being wanted yet guards himself with exquisite care against embarrassment.

Monica Orozco, as Georgie, makes each of the character's stories about herself equally plausible, which is to say, she makes none of them seem true. Orozco lets the character's eccentricities run from playful to pathological. Above all, she strains to provoke Alex. When she can't rile him up, she grins and seems to vow to keep up the shelling until she succeeds.

Scenic designer Sasha Schwartz fills the large stage with sliding panels, each a contrast of crisp architectural elements and the loose, rough texture of plaster.

The walls dwarf the actors, but lighting designer Mary Ellen Stebbins washes the surfaces with monochrome while focusing attention on the characters with lush, natural tones. Composer Tommy Crawford supplies arresting music, as moody and unpredictable as the story.

Costume designer Amy Sutton sets up nice contrasts between Alex's dull tweeds and tattersalls and Georgie's bright colors, fun prints and assertive cowboy boots.

No quantum physics intrudes, but the play is virtually a dissertation on opposites attracting. In six swift scenes that focus only on the present, the characters operate as unencumbered as subatomic particles, attracted or repulsed. They're mesmerizing. And it's consistently funny to watch an aging butcher and a footloose fortysomething experiment with affection where it doesn't seem to belong.

Masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test (PCR or rapid) taken within 72 hours are required. All Thursday performances are socially distanced with reduced seating.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Rules of Attraction"

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