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Review: ‘Heisenberg’ keeps the uncertainty going in romantic two-hander (Includes first-hand account)

Stephens’ eighty-minute Broadway hit from 2015, making its Canadian debut, borrows a premise at least as old as 1930s screwball-comedy movies: wacky, eccentric woman makes life hell for introverted man as they change each other’s lives. We’ve seen this in Bringing Up Baby, What’s Up, Doc and Carole Lombard comedies. But Stephens – arguably best known for the international hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – isn’t interested in replicating formula here; instead, he changes things up with an unpredictable plot and a more personal undertone.

And in his final directing gig as artistic director for Canadian Stage, Matthew Jocelyn chooses a minimalist approach, with few set items and a focus on these two lonely characters who find each other in the bustle of a London train station. Teresa Przybylski’s set consists of a wooden platform surrounded by the audience on all four sides, with a revolving floor circle that moves so slowly and subtly that you almost forget it’s there. (“This conversation is getting cyclical,” a character says at one point, as the revolve starts turning.)

Heisenberg, which premiered on Thursday, starts off both comedic and uncomfortable: Forty-something American expat Georgie Burns (Carly Street) has just kissed local septuagenarian butcher Alex Priest (David Schurmann) on the back of the neck in what initially appears to be a mistake. Instead of leaving, Georgie keeps on talking and aggressively trying to get to know him; instead of running away or accusing her of harassment, Alex stays and humours her, exuding both bemusement and annoyance. Intentionally or not, this opening scene has echoes of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story – partly in the way Jocelyn blocks it, with the stiff Alex stuck on a lone bench and the hyper Georgie taking over the space with her nonstop yakking.

This brief encounter blossoms into a weird May-December fling after Georgie finds Alex on Google and tracks him down to his butcher shop. She admits to a few lies she told about herself at the train station – an obvious red flag for many of us – but she eventually breaks down Alex’s protective emotional wall and gets him to open up about his life, his passions and his secrets, even his private conversations with his dead sister.

“Do you find me exhausting but captivating?” Georgie asks him, revealing both self-awareness and a hint of narcissism. Alex, meanwhile, tries to hang on to his wall: “People are so obsessed with feelings nowadays,” he complains. “I don’t feel. I f—king think.” It’s in this personality contrast that Stephens risks promoting national stereotypes, the overbearing American versus the cold, stiff-upper-lip Brit. But neither character is exactly what he or she seems to be – and we soon find out about further false pretenses on Georgie’s part, which lead their shared journey to her hometown in New Jersey. Are they really falling in love, or just using each other? Or both?

The closest recent parallel I can think of to this production is another U.K. playwright’s two-hander about a couple, Nick Payne’s Constellations – which, coincidentally, CanStage produced last year (and which also had a set with a floor revolve, albeit to lesser effect). Like Payne’s play, which brought string theory into a relationship, Heisenberg attempts to use a scientific theory as a metaphor: specifically, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a comment on the unpredictable nature of love affairs. It doesn’t really work in either case, and you almost wonder if Stephens’ title was meant to capitalize on the popularity of Breaking Bad.

Street, who won a Dora for her terrific performance in Venus in Fur in 2013, threatens to go over the top here. Her Georgie is a babbling, self-indulgent mess of neurosis who can’t stop interrupting herself and changing her story; she sometimes seems like an older variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, but even more annoying and less trustworthy. Despite this, Street imbues Georgie with enough charm to make her appealing and sympathetic, especially when we learn more of her backstory. You can understand why Alex is put off by her – and also drawn to her.

Shaw Festival veteran Schurmann is strong as Alex, even if his accent is weak (the character grew up in Ireland, but has no sign of a brogue, and although Schurmann was reportedly born in England, he betrays Canuck influence with occasional mispronunciations of words like “privacy”). Otherwise, he shows a hidden warmth, sharp intelligence and yearning vulnerability. As mismatched as this pair is, Alex’s newfound enthusiasm for Georgie makes you want their thing to work out, somehow.

Funny, moving and a little odd, Heisenberg is a pleasant experience, though nowhere near as overwhelming and mind-blowing as Curious Incident. It’s an unusual departure for Stephens, who’s otherwise known for hard-hitting dramas on big issues, like Punk Rock and Pornography. Then again, everybody’s entitled to a little romance now and then, even flawed romance.

Heisenberg runs at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre until December 17.

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