Don’t be misled by the title: Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg is a quirky, charming relationship play that has almost nothing to do with the famous Uncertainty Principle or any other concept in quantum physics. What the play asks is simply: Can a hyperactive, mischievous 42-year-old woman and an emotionally blocked, laconic 75-year-old man find happiness together in present-day London? Thanks to Emilia Sargent’s delightful portrayal of chatterbox Georgie, and Michael Mahoney’s largely persuasive acting as taciturn Alex, the 90 minutes of this Tampa Rep production are enjoyable, endearing, even a little suspenseful. If you like well-drawn characters and unpredictable dialogue performed by top-notch performers, this show is for you. As for depth, an original perspective, something to think about on the drive home: sorry, not this time. Where the physics of theater is concerned, this play’s strictly Newtonian. For all its many satisfactions, it never reaches a new dimension.
But when you have Sargent and Mahoney, who needs Niels Bohr? These two actors, deftly directed by Jim Sorensen, turn in such fine performances, we’re easily able to forget the unfulfilled promise of the play’s title. Sargent’s got the harder task, and she lives up to it splendidly. Her Georgie is unpredictable, self-dramatizing, intermittently dishonest. She’s either a waitress or an assassin or a receptionist at an elementary school, depending on the hour, and her intentions are friendly, sexual, or financial, depending on the day. Sargent has tremendous talent, and she’s able to play Georgie’s neuroticism with so much joie de vivre, we’re both attracted and repulsed: Is this woman the most fun hominid south of Manchester or the most dangerous north of Brighton? When she tells us she has a grown son who refuses to see her, we can guess at how exasperating he must have found such a mother; but we can also want this child and parent reunited, even if only for a few minutes. And Sargent handily answers the toughest question any performer playing Georgie has to face — can we imagine her honestly attracted to a man 30 years her senior? Sargent says “yes” by showing us that Georgie is desperately needy, desperately afraid of being hurt by a man with more leverage than she, desperately afraid of risking her heart in an equal liaison. Which is all a way of saying that Sargent knows this character from toenail to headband and allows us to know her also. This is wonderful acting.
As for Mahoney as Alex, he somehow has to solve the contradiction of being a cold fish as a character and an interesting personage as an actor. He manages this trick by displaying, little by little, the unfolding of a man who was wounded long ago — by a woman named Joanne, and by a deceased sister he still “talks” to — and who has gone whole years hiding from his feelings. Mahoney’s Alex is credibly an oddball who is most comfortable walking alone, listening to music for the spaces between the notes, operating a butcher shop that no one frequents. To be a block of wood and still to hold out the possibility of turning human — this is Mahoney’s challenge, and for the most part he gets it right. But there are moments when he errs on the side of insensibility, and one wishes that he were better able to signal, however quietly, the great turmoil that must lurk under such a placid surface. Author Stephens tells us that Alex is subject to sudden fits of weeping, and we see one of these as the drama proceeds. But I’m not sure that I believe it. Mahoney’s Alex may repress his inner self a little too successfully.
Speaking of success, Heisenberg’s design is austerely excellent. Lea Umberger’s set is nothing but a bare floor on which mathematical symbols are drawn, and two tables that can serve as anything from a butcher’s counter to a bed. Sargent is not only an actor in this production, but also a costume designer; and she has each character change one or two items of mostly casual clothing between scenes, thus quietly suggesting the progress of the couple’s relationship. As always, Jo Averill-Snell’s lighting is nicely atmospheric, and there’s even a little dancing, choreographed by Cheryl Lee. I’ve come to expect superb minimalism in Tampa Rep productions, and this show gives us that again.
And as for Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? Well, yes, this show illustrates it, but so does every other human drama from time immemorial. Where life is concerned, what’s not uncertain? Ask Agamemnon. Ask Hedda Gabler.
Or ask Georgie and Alex, as they entertainingly scope out their indeterminate future.
Mark E. Leib's theater criticism for CL has won seven awards for excellence from the Society for Professional Journalists. His own plays have been produced Off-Broadway and in Chicago, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and the Tampa Bay Area. He is a Continuing Instructor at USF, and has an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he won the CBS Foundation Prize in Playwriting. Contact him here.