An American woman named Georgie walks by the Irish-born Alex in a train station in London, where they both live. She kisses him on the neck, in what seems like an embarrassing but believable case of mistaken identity—at first, anyway.
They fumble through a conversation. Alex—polite and impermeable, but maybe a little bit intrigued—keeps trying to put his ear buds back in. Georgie overshares at a mile a minute. It soon becomes clear that her stories don't add up.
On another day, Georgie, who is 42, Google-stalks Alex, who is 75, and shows up at the butcher shop he owns. Soon, they become fixtures in each other’s lives.
Thus begins Heisenberg, a play by Simon Stephens that opened Off-Broadway in 2015, moved to Broadway, and has been widely staged in the U.S., Canada and London. This month, it’s at Restless Artists Theatre, a black-box theater in downtown Sparks that’s been staging challenging, quirky dramas since it opened in 2016.
This stage, with it chalkboard backdrop, is decorated so minimally that it asks audiences to engage in a fairly advanced degree of suspended disbelief. The London skyline is comprised of a small, white outline drawing. Alex has to pantomime cleaning the cases in his shop, and theatergoers need to pretend that there’s wine in the empty stem glasses.
Within a few scenes, though, it becomes clear that the omitted sets and props do not amount to cut corners, but to the fact that a performance of Heisenberg is intended to rely almost entirely on the dialog and the actors. An introductory note in the script dictates, “The stage should be as bare as possible. The walls of the theatre should be exposed.”
Those omitted props and sets become easier to do without as the characters carry on their strange, new relationship. As their chemistry ebbs and flows, each actor gets a chance to demonstrate quite a range.
Bob Ives plays Alex with a charming, realistic brogue, conveying both a stoic façade and the deep cracks beneath it with aplomb. Debra Lynn Hull achieves the sustained awkwardness that it takes to play the frenzied, deliberately hard-to-buy Georgie, and at the moments where her character slips into vulnerability—and what might even be honesty—she is positively magnetic. And, while this is definitely not a comedy, both actors deliver a slow but steady stream of laughs of many varieties, including extra-dry, straight-up farcical, and foot-in-mouth.
Step by step, the story reveals that both have lost someone they love, and each one carries the burden of loss as if it’s a different shape, a different weight—a different animal altogether.
The story becomes, to a large degree, a meditation on the things that people want, need and expect from each other—sex, companionship, validation, a helping of the other’s emotional or material resources—and how those things can come in various and surprising combinations. And this play asserts that closeness can come in unexpected forms.
Alex says, in the second act, “We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we’re sharing, don’t we?” In typical Alex fashion, he delivers this gem without an ounce of fanfare. His gesture, tone and blocking don’t let on in the least that he’s summing up another of the play’s main points.