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In a theatrical age where so many relationship dramas hinge on a shock-the-audience twist, there is something to be said for a charming play that puts the principle of uncertainty right up front in its title.
Heisenberg, a play named for the German physicist who coined a theory of indeterminacy, opened Sept. 28 at Signature Theatre, the lucky local venue that became the first to stage this sleeper Broadway hit from two years ago. Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt starred in that production of Simon Stephens’ play, which initially ran in a much smaller off-Broadway theater.
Signature’s black box production restores Heisenberg to an intimate-but-abstract vibe. Director Joe Calarco stages the show in the round, with a clever set piece (Stephens instructs for the stage to be as bare as possible) that initially functions as a bed, folds into a park bench, and later stacks into a counter. The minimalist aesthetic will be familiar to anyone who has seen the English dramatist’s best-known play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won the 2015 Tony for best new play and toured at the Kennedy Center a year later.
Signature’s cast for Heisenberg features Rachel Zampelli, seen more frequently in musicals, in the roll of Georgie, a single 40ish woman from Jersey living in London who meets Alex, a septuagenarian butcher played by Michael Russotto, in a train station. Their banter isn’t so much an exchange of wits as it is a battle of stereotypes: a lower class Lorelai Gilmore come to torture Anthony Hopkins as the reserved English butler in The Remains of the Day.
“I’ve seen your type before,” Georgie says, after identifying herself as a waitress. “The shy, brooding intellectual type. You come in. You sit down. You order a croissant. You read a fucking poem. … I’m right, aren’t I? I’ve got you down to a tee.”
She is surprised to learn, a few long rambles later, that she does not.
“What job do you do?” Georgie asks him, after spilling her life story, which includes marriage and divorce to an Englishman and a romantic honeymoon in Thailand.
“I’m a butcher,” he says. When she protests, he follows up with, “Yes I am, I’m afraid.”
But Georgie, it turns out, is not a waitress. The whole play turns on whether or not we believe anything she says, whether or not we believe her romantic affection for the much older Alex, and whether or not we believe genuine love is still possible when both partners know one may be lying.
There is no big reveal in this play, and honestly, given all the hype about Heisenberg, that’s almost disappointing. Parker’s New York performances were described as “explosive,” but potential combustion is not Zampelli’s goal. Her Georgie is a little nuts and likeably neurotic, especially when she dumps out the entire contents of her purse onstage before putting on hand lotion.
Russotto is a well adjusted, empathetic sad sack who nails a tricky accent: Irish by birth, but living in the U.K. for the past 60 years. Georgie says she loves his eyes, and Russotto does manage to look at her not like a helpless puppy, but like a good man who knows deep down inside he could use a good lay.
He gets one, but it’s not a transformative experience. Neither character undergoes a seismic shift, and maybe that’s what’s missing from this production of Heisenberg. Or maybe both characters learn to be comfortable moving forward in life despite many uncertainties, and that’s the whole point.
To Nov. 11 at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$89. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.