Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Summer/Winter Romance an Uncertainty in Heisenberg at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2018 at 1:03 PM

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Uncertainty Principle: The principle that the momentum and position of a particle cannot both be precisely determined at the same time. — Google.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Exists solely "in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."  — Wikipedia.

How nice it is for fans when these sorts of harmonics occur between shows in a local theater season. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which opened last week at Playhouse on the Square, is a spectacle-driven event, faithfully adapted from Mark Haddon's book by British playwright, Simon Stephens. Heisenberg, which opened the same weekend at Theatre Memphis, is a a spectacle-free example of the kind of work Stephens does when he's doing his own thing. In the case of Heisenberg, "his own thing" is also a little like Tom Stoppard's thing, but shorter, maybe a wee bit duller, and way less pleased with itself.

None of the above is a complaint, mind you. But be warned: Heisenberg is not a play about the famously conflicted WWII physicist tasked with developing a nuclear weapons program for the Nazis. Beyond the title, his name is never mentioned and the metaphor, at the heart of Theatre Memphis' sturdily built production, is pretty basic: It's difficult to take the full measure of a person or relationship in any time-isolated circumstance. It's harder still to predict where the players may end up when the curtain comes down. The story is a romance, of sorts, with just a hint of suspense woven into the fabric. It introduces us to Alex Priest, a reserved, 75-year-old Irish-born butcher living in London, whose life is turned upside down by a motormouthed American woman with ulterior motives.

Alex is shocked when a complete stranger sneaks up on him at a train station and kisses him on the back of the neck. Georgie Hardeman swears it was a case of mistaken identity, but she sticks around the station anyway, launching an awkward, distinctly one-side conversation. It's the beginning of an unlikely and complicated relationship between a mouthy 42-year-old woman and a quiet but soulful septuagenarian who loves music like John Cusack in High Fidelity and takes long walks around London with nothing but his headphones for company. Stephens' script toys with the idea that we can never tell where a story will go, but we can be pretty sure from the onset that Georgie— a confessed fabulist — is either going to swindle Alex or the two lonely characters are going to fall in love and/or teach one another valuable life lessons. Or maybe some less expected combination of all of the above.

Like the sensitive young protagonists of a certain kind of movie, Alex is coping with losing his parents. He's also managing the trauma of true love lost. The only real difference between Alex and the sensitive but stunted male leads in coming of age fantasies like Elizabethtown, or 500 Days of Summer, is that, by the time Georgie shows up in his life, Alex has been making the most of his arrested development for 60 years or so. And he's pretty good at it.

In many regards, Georgie is a "manic pixie dream girl" straight out of central casting, but aged to middle years — like a slightly broken refugee from Mama Mia. Unlike the cinema archetype she so closely resembles, Georgie, a school administrator by profession, has been doing her quirky carpe diem schtick long enough to have a backstory. This includes an adult son who hates her free-spirited ways and has abandoned her for the USA where he hopes to put down roots. Differences aside, the results here are very much the same as they always are with the MPDG type. She storms into Alex's life like a 42-year-old Kirsten Dunst,  and the sheer force of her quirk draws him into an unexpected, sometimes dangerous, and certainly uncharacteristic adventure that results in sexual and personal awakenings and second chances.

As Georgie Natalie Jones comes on like a weird tornado, winding and smashing her way into Alex's personal space. It's a strong, detailed performance that hints at the kind of work Jones might have done as Maggie the Cat had she been given more to work with in Theatre Memphis' 2017 production of Cat on a Hot in Roof.  In a dynamic similar to Cat's, Georgie's would-be squeeze doesn't always have much to say. In Irene Crist's tightly directed production, Alex is always present, no matter how hard Jones monologues.

Alex is another familiar type. He's a classic salt-of-the-earth guy with the soul of a poet/philosopher. He's a sensitive butcher who likes knowing that animals have seams and are put together just like ready-to-wear. He's never experienced life outside of London, but he can tango like a champ. He's got a big heart, a bigger record collection, and grand ideas about the universe, if only somebody would ask him to share.

There's not so much salt and vinegar in Jerry Chipman's butcher. His routines seem less habitual than duty-bound, just at the edge of dharma. He blushes and giggles his way through the awkward stuff in a sweet, complete performance that's maybe a little too passive for a little too long.

Jack Yates' set is an elegantly abstract object lesson in economy, utility, and how to frame characters in a small, intimate drama. It's likely my favorite thing the resident designer has ever done in Theatre Memphis' smaller black box space.

I've admittedly fallen for a few manic pixies, but, for being a committed Harold & Maude guy,  fantasies about older men and eccentric younger women have never turned my ticket. All else aside, Heisenberg is still that. But clocking in at about 90 minutes, it's too brief to bog down and, if it sometimes feels a little familiar, I can't complain about a show that invites us to think a little harder about uncertainty and the limits of information without making the physics lesson too dense, too dark, or too self-congratulatory. Good show!

Correction: An earlier draft misidentified Georgie Hardeman as Katie Hardeman.

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