Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018
 

That uncertain someone

Theatre


Sarah Grace Wilson and James Carpenter forge an unlikely relationship in "Heisenberg," Simon Stephens' play now at the Geary Theater. Photo: Kevin Berne
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Most of us would quickly, but carefully, take our leave of Georgie Burns. This 40-something American woman in London seems unhinged in ways that are slightly endearing, often obnoxious, and most possibly dangerous. "Nice to have met you," you might say, as you slowly step backwards in the way people separate themselves from a dangerous animal. But in Simon Stephens' play "Heisenberg," Georgie's self-described "captivating but exhausting" allure has found its mark in a 75-year-old butcher with no wife, children, siblings, or close friends.

The quietly reserved Alex Priest is duly dubious about this foul-mouthed chatterbox who seems to be a pathological liar who then pathologically corrects those lies before beginning the cycle again. "I know people will reject me," she tells Alex, "so I try to speed the process." But the wary bachelor is both bemused and amused by this curious creature, and their relationship quickly – at Georgie's suggestion – moves to sex. "It's one of my favorite things," she says, "having sex with someone who hasn't had sex in a long time."

ACT is presenting Stephens' play, seen on Broadway in 2016, in a production that places a hefty burden on the two actors playing Georgie and Alex, who happen to comprise the entire cast. James Carpenter, as Alex, is quietly captivating as his responses to Georgie's increasingly outlandish entreaties evolve in ways that the veteran actor makes genially credible. Genial is a word few would use to describe Georgie, and it's the far more challenging role. Sarah Grace Wilson has to push the limits of both Alex's and the audience's patience, and while I would have abandoned the character within 10 minutes, Wilson does project enough quirky charm and spasms of vulnerability to warrant a longer relationship.

As for the play's title, it's a reference to quantum physics pioneer Werner Heisenberg, although his name goes unmentioned. What is invoked is his "uncertainty principle" that argues against precision in predicting the behavior of interacting pairs of an atom's components. That's the unpredictable life that Georgie offers Alex in contradiction of all that has come before for him.

Alexander V. Nichols' set barely deserves that name, with only some minimal projections on rear curtains and a few pieces of austere furniture. There's little sense of place, but that was the template in the New York production as well, and the idea presumably is to put full focus on the characters. In director Hal Brooks' production, the performances are strong enough to warrant this steely spotlight.

 

"Heisenberg" will run at ACT's Geary Theater through April 8. Tickets are $15-$110. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org.

 






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