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REVIEW: "Heisenberg" - Laguna Playhouse

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"...Do you find me exhausting but captivating?” asks Georgie in Simon Stephens’ sweet, surprising “Heisenberg.”

Played at full quirky tilt by Faline England, the answer is a resounding yes on both counts. The object of Georgie’s initially unwelcome affection is Alex Priest (Joe Spano), a stranger in his mid-70’s, whose neck she kisses in a London train station. It is hard to discern her motives, because she surrounds herself in a hurricane of self-conscious verbiage that alternates between brutal honesty and pathological lies. But if she’s crazy, she’s also a fox, and Alex—an introverted butcher and lifelong bachelor—can’t resist her for long.

Laguna Playhouse, in Co-Production with Rubicon Theatre Company, proudly presents “Heisenberg,” a play by Simon Stephens, which initially appears to be little more than a reworking of a romantic screwball formula we know too well: wacky heroine meets inhibited hero and sends his well-ordered life into chaos. Remember when madcap Katharine Hepburn besieged a prim Cary Grant back in the 1930s? And Georgie, a loud American in her 40s, in London, would seem to be telling us that we’re following just such a plotline when she assesses her effect on Irish-born shop owner Alex: “You’re not so much a creature of routine as a psychopathic raging monster of it. And then I come along.”

Directed by L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Award winner Katharine Farmer, “Heisenberg,” opened on March 27th and is set to end Sunday, April 14th. Ms. Farmer’s most recent directorial offering at Rubicon was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” featuring Ben Davis and Madison Claire Parks. One of the assets of the 80-minute “Heisenberg,” which she directs with surgical assurance, is that it’s a satisfyingly sentimental, life-affirming mating dance between two lonely souls who are so utterly dissimilar that of course they are made for each other; yet they’re not.

And for a woman of mystery, Georgie Burns sure seems like an out-in-the-open kind of gal. Make that way out. Clearly, Georgie is over the edge, in a “Fatal Attraction” sort of way — only she isn’t. As embodied to explosive perfection by Ms. England’s remarkable portrayal, Georgie Burns keeps coming at, and after, Alex, the sole other character in the play. He doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance in fending off this full frontal assault on his own volition. But neither does anyone else in the audience. She can’t explain why she does the things she does. And she can’t stop pouring out, in obscenity-punctuated monologues, the whole history of what led her to this moment.

Except she’s lying. Which she admits. Then she lies some more. Alex, understandably, retreats and disappears, but Georgie tracks him down. Is she a dangerous stalker, a lovelorn nut with a thing for older men, or a con artist zeroing in on her prey? These are not mutually exclusive options.

Mr. Spano brings a receptive dignity to Alex, an obdurately passive but resistant being who finds himself more open to being moved than he ever anticipated. He is also — unexpectedly and beguilingly sensual, and he exudes a radiant, non-prurient contentment in a post-intimate scene that gives temporal affinity some good marks.

But if you choose to tune into the quieter frequencies of this show, you’ll detect the presence of a probing work that considers a number of alternatives that could shape our lives at every moment. On this level, Mr. Stephens’s latest play isn’t so much a lesser variation on "Bringing Up Baby" as it is an arresting companion piece to Nick Payne’s "Constellations," which applies the laws of quantum mechanics to the basic boy-meets-girl plot.

This is, of course, a play titled “Heisenberg,” presumably in reference to Werner Heisenberg, whose uncertainty principle helped redefine physics. The title comes from a strange aspect of quantum physics, which says it is impossible to measure both the speed and position of an object at the same time.

Georgie nicely reduces it down to this: “If you watch something closely enough you realize you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there.” It fits naturally into a script that celebrates randomness and predictability, however, there is no mention of Heisenberg’s name in Mr. Stephens’s play.

But underestimating Mr. Stephens may be a mistake, who has a way of putting his finger on a hidden pulse that keeps clichés alive. The author of the current five-time Tony winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," Mr. Stephens has written an adventurous assortment of dramas ("Harper Regan," "Punk Rock," "Port") that locate the exotic in the familiar. He does so with a subtlety that demands we be more than passive observers, that — to use a distinction made by Alex, talking about music — we listen instead of just hear.

Stephens sides with love - in whatever way it comes - and he embraces human mutability. Of personalities, Alex says: “They’re never fixed. They can always change. They mean nothing.” Later, he turns to Georgie: “We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we’re sharing, don’t we?”

Georgie and Alex do articulate, though, in their own plain-spoken languages, as a portrait of a couple acting and reacting to each other, registering the changes that occur with each encounter, each revelation, each word spoken. With a mix of austere focus and emotional fluidity, Mr. Spano and Ms. England deliver every fractional response.

So obviously he needs someone to take him out of himself. And so she takes him out, because she is just so very taken by his adorable eyes…

He needs her eccentricity to reinvigorate his moribund life, if not his heartbeat. Alex says he likes being a butcher because animals have great “seams.” He also exhibits an extraordinarily eclectic interest in music, listening to everything from Mozart to punk rock. While Alex doesn’t deserve Georgie’s indictments, you do wonder how these two exact opposites hope to find any mutual cohabitation. Eventually, Georgie and Alex do make love, and we must assume that he ultimately submits because he’s been celibate since the 1950s.

Then, when it looks halfway through the play that there’s going to be a cynical, cruel twist to the plot... actually, it’s just one of those mid-movie obstacles. And the way it’s overcome – feigned affection that seems to be turning into something more authentic! – is the stuff of every rom-com, like, ever.

“Heisenberg” may or may not be one of those screwball comedies in which opposites attract. With a 30-plus year spread, Georgie and Alex may even be wrong for each other, which means their relatively happy ending finale emerges as false and forced. Because rarer metals than brass make up Ms. England’s Georgie. And you can feel calculation competing with spontaneity in every breath she takes. Watch the transformation in Georgie’s persona when it is she, for a change, who’s surprised in her natural habitat. Or listen to how Ms. England, at a crucial and heartbreaking moment, answers “yes” and “no” to the same question, repeatedly.

Her performance, like Mr. Stephens’s play, deserves to be attended to carefully. At one point, Alex, explaining the appeal of a Bach sonata (for two instruments) to Georgie, says the reason that great music surprises us is that “it doesn’t exist in the notes” but “in the spaces between the notes.”

It takes skilled musicians and composers to create the notes that make those spaces breathe and tantalize. The range of possibilities between the spaces in “Heisenberg” resonates in your mind long after it’s over, just as the unheard melody lingers on.

There are plenty moments of tenderness, and moments when the past hijacks the characters painfully. And it’s also funny – Joe Spano, usually a straight man in episodic TV, is surprisingly also a master of comic timing, making Alex’s short, defensively bewildered responses land with big laughs. It ends in a park in Hackensack, New Jersey where they have gone to look for Georgie’s son. One of the loveliest scenes in the play is Georgie and Alex dancing a tango in the park, giving big smiles to most of the audience.

Mike Billings’ set is uncluttered, unfussy – a back wall simulating dark gray erector-like extensions that might be seen in a depot, perhaps, or train station, although maintains in other scenes elsewhere. Furniture includes two simple chairs which otherwise serves as a bed pressed together. Coats and scarves draped on the chairs give it a homey couch look. It works strikingly well with Mr. Billings’ subtle backlit Lighting Design. Jesse Vacchiano is the Sound Designer and Production Stage Manager; Michael Mullen is the Costume Designer, Joel Goldes is Dialect Coach, and Cate Caplin is the Tango Choreographer. Ann E. Wareham is in her eighth year as Artistic Director, and Ellen Richard serves as Executive Director.

Faline England has been seen at the Rubicon in "Gulf View Drive" (L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Award for Best Production of a Play, Larger Theatre/Nomination for Best Supporting Actress); "Crimes of the Heart" (Indy Award), "Turn of the Screw" (Ovation Nomination for Best Production of a Play, Larger Theatre), and "All My Sons" (Ovation Award for Best Production of a Play, Larger Theatre/Nomination for Best Supporting Actress). Television credits include “9-1-1,” “Station 19,” “Criminal Minds,” “The Mentalist,” “Nip/Tuck,” “CSI,” “Numb3rs,” “Medium” and “Without a Trace.”

Mr. Spano, who’s currently in his 16th season as Tobias Fornell on “NCIS,” is Alex, unemotional on the surface but given to crying for no reason, solitary, and content with his life. Initially he seems almost like an accessory supporting Georgie’s narrative but as the play progresses Alex opens and comes into his own. The Emmy award-winning Mr. Spano’s long expansive career includes roles on “NYPD Blue,” “Hill Street Blues,” and “Amazing Grace.” He’s also appeared in films like “Apollo 13,” “American Graffiti,” “Hollywoodland,” and “Frost/Nixon.”

“Heisenberg” continues at Laguna Playhouse beginning this Wednesday, April 10th at 7:30pm, a Thursday matinee at 2pm, and Thursday evening at 7:30pm with Stage Talk, Friday, April 12th again at 7:30pm, Saturday matinee at 2pm, and Saturday evening at 7:30pm, and a final performance on April 14th at 1pm. Tickets may be purchased at This show is Ultra Recommended!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

photo credits: Jeanne Tanner


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