Manhattan Theatre Club
131 W. 55th Street
“I love Mary-Louise Parker!” crowed an exuberant audience member at a curtain call for Heisenberg, which is very much a Mary-Louise Parker vehicle. This modest new two-character play by Simon Stephens has no set aside from two tables and two chairs, and so there is nothing to distract us from Parker’s star performance, which is pretty much the whole show. Parker has always possessed an unusually sensitive and open emotional range, and her physical reactions have become so extreme in Heisenberg that it seems like she is fetishizing her own gift, just as her audience is. This is maybe enjoyable for her, and for some of the audience, but it is basically not a healthy state of affairs.
In the first moments of the play, Parker’s character Georgie has just impulsively kissed the neck of Alex (Denis Arndt), an older man, in some public place, and she sets off on a long and desperate stream of talk. It’s one of those contrived theatrical situations where a character has to keep unnaturally talking in order for the play to move forward and the other character has to unnaturally listen for the same reason. Stephens tries to get out of this bind by having Georgie refer, sometimes, to her own unnatural way of relating to people, or at least her way of relating to this man Alex, who turns out to be a romantic Irish butcher. Alex is 75 and Georgie is supposed to be in her early forties, and their age difference is one of the many things she talks about as she gets him out on a date and finally into bed.
Georgie is written as a babbler with no internal censor, and so Parker goes all out with that, allowing her own familiar mannerisms to assume extravagantly physical teenaged shapes. Georgie says she wants to look for her grown-up son, who has abandoned her (for obvious reasons!), and this leads to a little crisis with Alex where her actual motives for wooing him, in her contrived and obnoxious way, are revealed. But Alex is really an old softie, and they get over this speed bump and she continues to talk, and talk, and talk some more.
If Georgie actually existed (and it’s not entirely convincing that she could) she would be the sort of person anyone would run away from within a minute of talking to her, or hearing her talk. But Stephens seems to find her as charming as the audience at Manhattan Theatre Club finds Parker’s performance. If you think about this romantic trifle of a play for more than a moment, it gets very depressing, because it finally seems as if Alex is only putting up with this unbearable woman because she is 30 years younger and attractive. That’s clearly not the surface message of this play, but that’s what it looks and feels like at the end, and love in the theater—and elsewhere—is nothing but empty talk if it is left so totally unexamined and self-indulgent.