Principles of Uncertainty: Thoughts on Heisenberg – October 8, 2016

Like death and taxes, there is a level of certainty in the existence of uncertainty in all aspects of life. No one really knows how situations will turn out until they unfold, and random encounters can lead to unexpected relationships. The theme of uncertainty is explored in Heisenberg, written by Simon Stephens, currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre from now until December 11, 2016.  I obtained tickets via my usual source (the TDF Pik-a-Tkt table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Grand Auction), and were actually the only “real” tickets I won that day (the rest were vouchers); it was also my first time seeing a show at the Friedman, a theater associated with the Manhattan Theatre Club.

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Heisenberg explores the interactions between two people – Georgie and Alex – and how an impetuous, random act binds them together, with unexpected results and unintended revelations. The premise is based upon (and indirectly refers to) the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa” (description pulled from Wikipedia, which had the most straightforward, not-too-technical definition I could find). The notion that there is an inverse relationship of knowing about different aspects of someone (as it is in this play) is interesting in that the honing in on one facet of a person obscures the ability to see the “big picture”. Truth becomes subjective upon the perspective and perception of what is revealed, bringing forth doubts on the validity of the revelations and the motivations behind them. The prospect of the unknown looms throughout, as the interactions between Georgie and Alex play out as expected, until it doesn’t. There are levels of ambiguity about what actually happens throughout the play and how it ends, but in light of the Uncertainty Principle, that’s probably the intention of the play – to spotlight the nature of uncertainty that is life.

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The overall scenic design of the play is inventive and fitting, given the subject of the play – while the theater has a traditional proscenium configuration, there is onstage seating – about ten rows seating 200 people on stage. The actual space from which the actors perform becomes a narrow strip, with minimal set pieces and occasional props; there are no real costume changes per se, aside from the addition of jackets worn at several points during the play. With the onstage seating and small theatre space available for the actors to tell their story, it makes the play all the more intimate, with the ability for the audience to view the story from different perspectives. Mary Louise Parker and Denis Arndt were phenomenal as Georgie and Alex, respectively; their interactions, mostly through quasi-rambling monologues were revelatory as their relationship grew from mild annoyance to a kind of co-dependency. Aside from a brief snippet of music about which the pair conversed, there was silence – awkward pauses in between the verbal exchange which enhanced the scenes between the unlikely pair.

The show is currently in previews (it open on October 13th) and after the matinee performance there was a talk back with the associate director about the themes proposed in the one act, hour and twenty-minute play. During the talk back, the audience members who remained had contrasting opinions about the characters and their motivations, based on their individual perspectives and (probably preconceived notions), which further enhances the impact of the play. With the talk back (which I didn’t know they had until it was announced before the show’s start), I didn’t have an opportunity to stage door (though the security person at the stage door did inform those who did try that the two actors would not be coming out to sign playbills and such – also, it was a rainy afternoon, so I can’ really blame them for not wanting to “brave the elements”, as they had another performance that evening).

In conclusion, Heisenberg is an interesting play that makes you wonder about the essence of uncertainty and examine the consequences to even the most random of actions. Uncertainty will always exist, and the more attention you focus on one aspect of a situation, you might get blind-sighted by something else, which could (and just might) change your perceptions about the situation as a whole. Or at least that’s my own perception of it all. It’s a worthwhile play to see, and the very notion of uncertainty is highly relevant in these uncertain times.

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