The Uncertainty Principle Takes Over A.C.T., in Heisenberg

Simon Stephens' play is modeled on the "dozens of romantic comedies that pair one quirky individual with a perfectly imperfect mismatch."

Georgie Burns (Sarah Grace Wilson) accosts a man in a train station with a kiss. Until her lips brush against the back of his neck, they’re strangers to each other. Georgie, an American in London, zeroes in on Alex Priest (James Carpenter), a 75-year-old bachelor sitting alone on a public bench listening to music. He is taken aback by the younger woman’s insistence on engaging him in conversation after the kiss, which, she insists, was a case of mistaken identity. Alex may be isolated and withdrawn, even priestly if you read too much into the meaning of his last name, but there’s something suspect and off-kilter about Georgie’s aggression. Especially as it manifests itself repeatedly in curse words.

The playwright Simon Stephens models Heisenberg (at A.C.T., through April 8) after dozens of other romantic comedies that pair one quirky individual with a perfectly imperfect mismatch. Despite the titular association with the German physicist’s “uncertainty principle,” the play itself is overdetermined from the beginning. There is nothing random or surprising about Georgie’s behavior — it’s entirely calculated. That Alex resists then succumbs to her predations is also a foregone conclusion. But the predictability of the characters’ behavior is not what’s problematic. It’s that their inner lives are so weakly imagined.   

Stephens creates one singular trait to distinguish Georgie and Alex, to make them seem like real and unique individuals. When a production like this one flattens out their performances, the writing comes across as gimmicky and shallow. Georgie can’t utter a single sentence without swearing. That’s her only super power. Wilson performs the role by keeping her eyes wide open, as if she were an ingénue and not a woman in her late 30s or early 40s. They bulge out every time she says the word “Fuck.” People swear to shock their listeners, to make their friends laugh or to hurt their feelings. But when Wilson says her lines, there’s no kick in the curses. She mouths the bad words without imparting any meaning into them. It’s not clear that Georgie understands how to use them or what their impact should be.

As a sparring partner, Alex is as emotional as milquetoast. To describe his responses to Georgie as defensive would be putting it way too strongly. Carpenter is passive in the role, and to a vanishing point. Listening to a Bach sonata in his earbuds — that’s how the playwright defines Alex, suggesting that he has as yet unseen hidden depths as a music connoisseur. But there’s not enough information in the script for the actor to breathe life and desire into the character. His backstory, which includes a failed love affair decades ago, isn’t fleshed out on stage. Either that or Carpenter couldn’t manifest it.

Georgie Burns (Sarah Grace Wilson) meets Alex Priest (James Carpenter) in London’s St. Pancras Train Station in Simon Stephens’s “Heisenberg.” (Kevin Berne)

In this case, exhibiting a peculiar habit doesn’t guarantee the creation of a compelling character. With Georgie and Alex, we’re stranded in our seats watching the bland leading the bland into bed. If this is meant to be a sexual fantasy, then it’s from an elderly, straight, white man’s point of view. Without so much as lifting a finger, Alex is pursued and then seduced by Georgie. That in itself as a fantasy would be fine, if passé, but in this passionless staging it comes across as a one-note joke with a £15,000 punchline. Georgie sleeps with him because she wants money to visit her wayward son who has decamped from England, away from her, to New Jersey. Whether this son actually exists is questionable, but by merely referring to a third character Heisenberg felt less like an enclosed and improbable world.       

Nothing in the A.C.T. production helps the cause. The scenic designer projects an unobtrusive image onto the back curtain and complements it with a minimal set — some moveable furniture. In the first scene, it’s meant to stand in for a train station in contemporary London. Instead, it evokes the no-man’s land that Georgie and Alex inhabit. Had a woman written this play, it’s plausible that Georgie might have been endowed with other strengths besides seducing lonely, older men. She might be capable enough to get to America on her own! But Stephens doesn’t give her anything else to work with. And a play that is dependent on the chemistry of two actors ought to confirm that an audience will find the coupling believable, in and out of the bedroom. Wilson and Carpenter maintain a friendly rapport on stage. Their being comfortable with each other is the last thing Heisenberg needs to pull off Alex’s dramatic conversion from being a music lover to becoming Georgie’s.

Heisenberg, through April 8, at A.C.T., 405 Geary St. $25-$90; 415-749-2228, or

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