Maybe the May-December romance that develops between the two characters in Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg isn’t as odd as it seems at first. In Forward Theater’s current production, running through February 3 in Overture’s Playhouse Theater, the entire world of the play unfolds in a rush of conversations between Alex, a 70-something, taciturn and weathered Jim Pickering and Georgie, a 40-something, mop-topped, free spirited Colleen Madden. On the surface his silent reserve and her energetic entropy feel naturally incongruant. But maybe they have things in common that Georgie sees right away, but Alex has to slowly warm to. For instance. . .
They both live with ghosts. Alex talks regularly with the spirit of his sister, who passed away at the age of eight, before his family moved from Ireland to London. And in the quiet afternoons of his dying butcher shop, he thinks only occasionally about a girl he was going to marry in his 20s, before she decided to marry someone else. Likewise, Georgie recently lost a husband — or maybe he was a lover — to a heart attack. And she feels an overwhelming ache in her stomach for her absent teenage son, who ran off to America, vowing never to speak to her again.
And they both like to hang around train stations, even when they’re not going anywhere.
Stuck spiritually and geographically, both displaced in foreign countries, they each sneak up to the edge of change, one without a compelling reason and the other without the means to make it happen. Until they meet.
They are also prone to outbursts of emotion that make other people uncomfortable. An occasional poet who keeps a terse, 50-word-per-day diary, Alex often succumbs to tears that are gone as quickly as they appear. Unable to edit herself, Georgie blurts out whatever thoughts come to her, even if they are premature, rude or intensely personal, then frequently apologizes for them just to avoid a quiet moment.
And over the course of the play, they both begin to need each other. And that realization in the end — that comfort, maybe even love, is near for both of them — is powerful. Particularly when playwright Stephens introduces an element of doubt, a motive that could mean the quirky, idiosyncratic love story, a celebration of random chance and last chances, is nothing of the sort. Perhaps, instead, it’s all a very calculated scam by a desperately unhappy middle aged woman, who showers an easy mark with attention, and even sex, hoping to lighten his bank account.
Thankfully the script, and this production, don’t tip their hand. The audience is simply challenged, mid-way through the play, to re-evaluate everything that’s been said so far, and square it with how the couple moves forward. It’s a brilliant and surprising device that adds many satisfying layers to the play.
Director Laura Gordon plays up the delightful symmetry inherent in Heisenberg, with one character sweeping the pair to a shared climax and then the other partner taking his turn as the dominant one. With an unsolicited kiss in the middle of a train station in the first scene, the couple moves from anonymity to intimacy with Georgie firmly leading the dance. She invades Alex’s personal space repeatedly and with confidence, even drawing a long, colorful scarf out of her handbag and across Alex’s lap, talking incessantly about things that she quickly admits are untrue. She is disorienting and clearly on the attack, even tracking him down at work and demanding a date. She pulls little bits of information about of Alex as he relaxes his defenses.
Gordon also reinforces a central idea of the play that we create ourselves over and over, with no strictly fixed personality, by having the actors arrange their own sets with pieces found in storage rooms on a set that’s literally a bare stage (elegantly simple design by Jason Fassl). The music between scenes — a montage of quirky love songs from many different genres — also supports the play extremely well. (Composition and sound design by FTC favorite Joe Cerqua.) Particularly after Alex professes his love for all types music, and then lists at least two dozen genres he enjoys — from country to rap to opera to techno — it’s a nice parallel to hear that love can be expressed in all sorts of unexpected arrangements.
This pattern continues through their first few dates — lies, admissions, laughter, challenges, inventions and dares until finally they fall into bed and the tables turn. When Georgie retreats, Alex pursues her, which is just what would happen if he was in love. Or if he was being reeled into a scam by a real pro.
In the second half of the play Alex is charge and it’s intensely satisfying to see the confusion on Pickering’s face transform to amusement; discomfort turn to affection. While Madden is good as Georgie, Pickering is sublime in the complex and very smart role of Alex.
But perhaps the most beautiful and illustrative moment of the play occurs when the two tango together in a park. A very difficult dance to master, the tango is all about intertwining legs, mastering intricate turns and flourishes, leaning on one another, moving with precision and passion, following the lead flawlessly. The first half of the dance, when Georgie wants to show off that she learned this skill that Alex had boasted of, she is clearly leading. The second half, he takes control. It is subtle and it is magnificent.
And if he’s being taken advantage of, well, it’s with his full knowledge and consent.