Arndt and Parker in Heisenberg, at the Samuel J. Friedman.
Perhaps it’s the uncertainty principle at work, but one of last year’s best dramas has somehow become one of this year’s best comedies. I’m referring to Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg, which opened tonight on Broadway, following an acclaimed Off Broadway run in 2015. Oddly, not much has changed on the surface of what I originally called a liberating and scary new play: The two-person cast — Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt — is still terrific, with Parker doing her best stage work in years, and Arndt again a wonderful surprise to New York audiences. (He has spent most of his career on the West Coast.) The script, too, is all but unaltered. Parker is Georgie, a 42-year-old American expat in London: a self-consciously weird oversharer and possible grifter. Arndt is Alex, a 75-year-old butcher, originally from Ireland, who in response to a history of tragedy and solitude has developed a spectacularly vivid if mostly invisible inner life. (He calls himself at one point “a deranged septuagenarian Pooh bear.”) The unlikely pair meet halfway between cute and harassment, when Georgie comes upon Alex at a train station and impulsively kisses him on the back of his neck; the tale spins off into six weeks of their relationship from there.
Yet somehow the spin seems to have reversed direction; it’s now less like a whirlpool pulling you under than a tornado flinging you up. Part of the change is surely the result of the new venue. Off Broadway at City Center Stage II, Heisenberg was staged (beautifully, by Mark Brokaw) in a 150-seat black box, with half the audience on either side of a long rectangular playing area, as if watching a tennis match — or, closer to the point, electrons in a shell. The configuration also meant that at no time was either actor more than a few feet away from at least part of the audience, nor was the audience very far from its own mirror image, observing. Working in MTC’s much larger proscenium space at the Samuel J. Friedman theater, the designer Mark Wendland, trying to replicate that effect, instead creates a new one. With one bank of seats built on the stage itself, facing the regular audience in the orchestra and balcony, and the play’s action taking place on the apron in between, the symmetry, and thus the implied mirroring, is gone. The effect is still spare and unconventional, but in a different way; from the stage seats, at any rate, the actors always seem to be in danger of falling off a precipice.
There is something inherently comical about this, a feeling intensified by the increased capacity. (Arranged this way, the Friedman seats about 660.) Rueful chuckles and individual cackles become rolling sheets of laughter when enough people are around to serve as kindling. Parker especially has responded to this with a slightly bigger performance, pulling out all the stops on Georgie’s nuttiness — but also steadying it with a greater ballast of sadness. It’s a classic Parker characterization, apparently completely transparent (you can see thoughts forming and dissolving) and yet totally opaque as to motivation. And Arndt, too, has adjusted his performance, in his case toward a greater naturalism; there isn’t a moment onstage, no matter how unlikely the things he is called upon to do as Alex, that you question his doing them. He is completely grounded, even as Georgie swirls him up in a wild and probably hopeless adventure. But he now plays like a straight man in more ways than one.
That changed dynamic is the other factor in the play’s new spin. When I first saw it, the relative hush of the house seemed to favor Alex’s arc, which was, at least superficially, more serious and perhaps more relatable: After resisting Georgie as a flake, and even after understanding that her motives in romancing him might be impure, he takes a flier with her in the hope that, sane or not, she can distract him from his profound loneliness. (His only confidant is a long-dead sister, who visits him in dreams.) But in that reading, Alex’s influence on Georgie is imperceptible if not beside the point. Near the end, when she describes him as looking “full of wonder,” you understand that his insistence on the primacy of observable fact over imputed concepts like mood or even personality have barely rubbed off on her. “It’s probably just my retinas,” he says. There is no such thing as “wonder,” only dead cells floating in vitreous humor.
But with the story’s increased size come the social pleasures of large-scale theater. The scene in which Alex and Georgie for the first time go to bed together, staged fully clothed on two hard blue tables, has the enhanced intimacy only sufficient distance can provide. A brief tango scene — Alex is a closet dancer, and Georgie has taken lessons — delivers all the pleasure of a musical-comedy production number, even without music. And with the balance tipping toward Georgie now, what seemed like a downbeat or at least a quiet denouement becomes provisionally and equivocally uplifting, like a glimpse of sunset through a clearing storm. It’s no longer the story of a man’s last chance but of a middle-aged woman’s awakening to the idea that it’s possible to get what you want, if only you will want things that actually exist. In a world of randomness, that counts as a happy ending.
Heisenberg is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through December 11.
*This article appears in the October 17, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.