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On its surface, Heisenberg is a deceptively simple little play of boy meets girl by Simon Stephens. But it's the title that'll clue you in to what is about to happen onstage. Heisenberg is the name of a German scientist, Dr. Werner Heisenberg, who concocted a theory in physics known as the Uncertainty Principle. In it, the good doctor states that the more thoroughly we know an object, the less likely we are to know how that object will behave. That's Heisenberg in a nutshell.
Burning Coal Theatre Company is currently running Heisenberg in their Murphey School Auditorium theater. Directed by Emily Ranii, the work is a fleet ninety-minute play about two unlikely people who meet in an unlikely place, and proceed to do unlikely things. Set in two places on either side of The Pond, this work starts out fast and never lets up. No two scenes are the same, either in locale or nature, and the world created by these two unlikely collaborators is just about as thoroughly enjoyable as can be created onstage.
Ranii's direction uses a very simple staging by ED Intemann, of one table and three chairs, as onstage props to create her scenes. We first happen upon Georgie Burns (Sarah Hankins) and Alex Priest (Tom McCleister) at an underground stop near Islington in England. It is a chance meeting and a very unexpected one for Alex. He is seated at the platform wearing his iPod when a woman he doesn't know approaches him from behind and kisses him on the back of the neck. This has happened just a second before the lights come up. Georgie spends the rest of the first scene trying to explain why she would do such a thing.
These two are about as polar opposite as two people can get.: He's a lifelong Londoner; she's an American. He's 75; she's in her forties. He's been a butcher his entire life; she's a receptionist at St. Paul's school, but she has been many things in her career. He is unmarried, has never married, and has no children; she too is unmarried, but she has a son, age 19, who has recently left the nest for America. In the process, he has told his mother that he never wants to see her again. This, of course, has left an indelible mark on her; it is never far from the surface. And finally, he, being British, is a staid gentleman; she is impulsive, a chatterbox, and what most of us would refer to as a "free spirit," a little flighty, perhaps, but thoroughly likable, nonetheless.
In a series of six scenes, these two embark on a journey that most of us would never even contemplate. After that first brief encounter, Alex expects to never see Georgie again, but, using the briefest of descriptions, she "Googles" him and tracks him down to his shop, where she accosts him and convinces him that they will see more of each other.
Stephens, who rose to fame on a stage adaptation of a novel titled The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, brings together two amazingly dissimilar characters and meshes them in ways we simply cannot predict. Yet, once this meshing takes place, it seems as natural as breathing. Each of these scenes is more unusual than the last, yet the progression that takes place on stage is a completely normal one. The crux of this idea, what makes the interaction work, is the idea that Alex, this staid and seemingly introverted elder Brit, is perfectly amenable to being led by this unusual woman, wherever it is she wishes to go. McCleister played Alex with a hidden comic genius, which only popped out on occasion, yet carried his character through one of the oddest situations one might imagine. Hankins, for her part, seemed to have the more difficult task here, in that her character is the impetus that acts on Alex; yet she handled Georgie with such control that Georgie became real for us, despite her flightiness. Hankins pushed the envelope with Georgie, but managed to do so without ripping any seams. It was a masterful creation. Together, these two took us along with them on a trip neither would have contemplated alone. And we found that, despite its perils, it was a trip we enjoyed taking.
Heisenberg is a treat, a comedy that is deceptively simple and riotously complex. Only a truly inspired playwright can manage such a feat. Two astoundingly dissimilar people come together by happenstance, go with each other willingly, and make the world around them work for them in ways neither of them could do alone. The entirety is a wonder, and this happy binding makes us feel good about mankind again. It is a tonic for the soul.
Heisenberg continues through Sunday, February 5. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.