Fair warning: If a stranger kisses you on the back of the neck in a train station (or a bus station or an airport) use caution. It might be a charming pathological liar. It might be your future soulmate. It might be a case of mistaken identity. You can never be sure.
And that’s the point, such as it is, of Simon Stephens’ intriguing little nugget, “Heisenberg.” Named for the German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, who proposed that quantum mechanics has an “uncertainty principle,” this two-person, 90-minute play unpeels layer after layer in a relationship that begins strangely and ends in the middle.
Michael Russotto and Rachel Zampelli are a compelling duo as Alex and Georgie, a pair so absurdly different as to call to mind Neil Simon’s reliable formula for his best known comedies: match two wildly disparate personalities, put them in close quarters, and turn them loose.
Unlike Simon’s work however, “Heisenberg’s” humor, when it happens at all, comes from Georgie’s startling devotion to telling lies. She “loves making things up” and wonders if, perhaps, the much older and staider Alex finds her “exhausting but captivating”. After a sporadic courtship initiated by Georgie which includes ambushing him at work, flattery, and eventually sex, he does.
The expected shoe drops, of course. Georgie’s through-line is her heartbroken love for her son, Jason, who has gone to the States, told her he is “sick of her”, and has disappeared somewhere in New Jersey. Georgie is broke and wants – we all guessed it – money. Or maybe there is no Jason. That’s the trouble with liars. The most practiced ones are so believable.
Joe Calarco directs with a delicate hand, and even though Georgie comes with her own blinking red warning signs, the quiet, single life of the aging Alex makes his vulnerability a given. When he gets a little drunk and has a fascinated young woman to listen to him, he opens up – always in that faultless Irish accent that could seduce far stronger women than Georgie. “Sometimes I burst out crying” he confesses. And Georgie knows she’s found her mark.
Pamela Weiner’s scene design makes a virtue of simplicity in the Ark stage, configured for this show in the round. A red platform with two black multi-purpose tables are all we need for a train station, a bedroom, a bar, an Indian restaurant. Georgie and Alex themselves carry out the swift, dance-like scene changes to Kenny Neal’s sound design. On the subject of music, Alex catches us up short. “Music exists in the spaces between the notes,” he asserts, and points out the unpredictability of all things Bach. We didn’t expect that from a celibate, lonely London butcher with a failing business.
Georgie, for her part, does the only predictable thing she can do. She lies – aggressively, embarrassedly, playfully, constantly. This out of control habit has one slender vine to hang from, and that is her certainty that people will reject her if they know her, and so she must be in control of the reasons they reject her. It almost makes sense.
This production of “Heisenberg” succeeds in creating a cell-like world in which nothing is extraneous, and nothing is “for sure.” And because as it is with Bach, we don’t know what the next note will be, we want to keep watching.
It may be that we are meant to see them as two particles obeying an incomprehensible attraction in a coldly disinterested universe. Though their individual stories and needs circle one another in an ever closing tango of maybes and what ifs, the dance comes to rest at last when Georgie confronts a moment that at least feels like truth, and Alex puts fear aside. Life may be uncertain, but as he finally acknowledges, it is “terribly brief.”
WANT TO GO?
Where: Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave.
Call: (703) 820-9771 or visit www.SigTheatre.org
Playing through Nov. 11