There are two very different stories that could be supported by the dialogue and action of Simon Stephens’s 2015 play Heisenberg.
The first is a May-December romantic comedy, in which Georgie (Robin Abramson), a free-spirited and impulsive American woman in her early 40s, meets, pursues, and eventually falls in love with Alex (Anthony Heald), a 75-year-old introverted, “still-waters-run-deep,” habit-bound Irish butcher.
The second is a black comedy of manipulation, in which Georgie – a narcissistic crazy woman with serious boundary issues – plots to seduce Alex – a lonely old man and easy mark – to get him to give her money so that she can travel from London to the US in search of the adult son who has cut off ties with her.
Director Tracy Brigden has leaned into the first of these two narratives in her production of the play. Given the Pittsburgh Public’s pastel hearts-and-cupids marketing of the show as a “boy-meets-girl story with a facelift,” she seems not to have been given much other choice. Brigden stages the play in the round on a minimalist set comprised of four benches on an open square of floor, which keeps our focus on the characters and the development of their unexpected relationship (as well as on Stephens’s witty dialogue).
And the character development here is first rate. Abramson imbues Georgie with vivacious charm – this is a character who talks up a storm, often contradicting herself from one minute to the next, and she enters into Alex’s life like a whirlwind, opening his eyes to a void in his life that he hadn’t previously realized was there. Heald, who plays Alex with wry self-effacement, is convincing as a man who has spent decades content with his daily routines and who is in no particular need of a shakeup. In the six weeks covered by the action of the play, they go from strangers to lovers, and although there are some pause-giving conflicts between the two characters, the story comes off as an essentially happy one, of two misfits who end up finding what they need in each other.
But the play’s title seems a clue that this outcome is an uncertain one, and that the second, alternative narrative I suggest might just as likely be valid. Indeed, the text even provides explicit direction to be wary of tidy outcomes, when Georgie muses that “we hold different perspectives on experiences we think we’re sharing.” Certainly that is true of many of the experiences these two characters share, particularly as Georgie seems to yank the rug out from under them by revealing, in later scenes, that she is a liar, a stalker, an emotional manipulator, an invader of other people’s privacy, and an overbearing mother to boot.
So while I think this production seeks to leave you with the warm-hearted feeling that Georgie has sparked a transformation in Alex and prompted him to carpe diem before it’s too late, the play may also prompt you, as it did me, to consider who a person like Georgie would be in real life. Is she really as charmingly harmless as Abramson portrays her to be, or will Alex – like her son and her son’s father – eventually want to put as much distance between himself and her as he possibly can? Or maybe the question it poses is a rephrase of Tennyson: given life’s uncertainty, is it really better to have lived and loved – even if the person you fall in love with is manipulating and using you – than never to have loved at all?