If ever there were a play with uncertainty in its DNA, it would be titled “Heisenberg.” By definition, right?
Mapping quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle onto a quirky May-December love story, Simon Stephens’ 2015 two-hander gets a bold new interpretation in the Rubicon Theatre-Laguna Playhouse co-production wrapping up its Ventura run this weekend and reopening in Laguna Beach next month.
Heisenberg himself might appreciate the unpredictable trajectory set in motion by a chance encounter in a London railway station between Alex (Joe Spano), an introverted 75-year-old butcher, and “Georgie” Burns (Faline England), a vivacious 42-year-old transplanted American. While Alex is sitting in his private earbud world, Georgie spontaneously plants a kiss on his neck. She did it, she says, because he reminded her of her recently deceased husband. The dubious veracity of that claim is only a prelude to the contradictory tangle of reality and fabrication in which Georgie wraps herself.
A few days later, when Georgie shows up in Alex’s shop with an agenda that only reveals itself in onion-like layers, the studiously conventional Alex proves surprisingly willing to enter the orbit of this disturbingly loose cannon and borderline stalker.
Of the play’s implicit analogy between the unpredictability of subatomic particles and its characters’ oddball choices, author Stephens once said, “If you know where something is, you can never know where it’s going to go or how it’s going to get there.”
Still, there’s a difference between indeterminacy and impenetrability. In the original Manhattan Theatre Club production that was remounted at the Mark Taper Forum last year, the fundamental mystery of what draws Alex and Georgie to one another in the first place — the raison d'être for their journey — was left as enigmatic as the characters themselves. The result had what Times reviewer Charles McNulty called “the feeling of a contrived acting exercise” before the experience deepened thanks to stars Michael Arndt and Mary Louise Parker.
In stark contrast, the Rubicon-Laguna Playhouse production is driven by director Katharine Farmer’s overarching interpretation that Alex and Georgie’s respective anomalies and imperfect socialization place them clearly on the autism spectrum.
The diagnosis is never explicitly stated, but it isn’t a stretch either. After all, as the playwright who also penned the stage adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” Stephens is no stranger to the territory.
No changes to the text are needed for a lens that snaps the characters and their relationship into focus, while still allowing their atypical story to surprise, delight and move us.
The concept informs so much of the play, and the actors run with it. Spano’s Alex is not just painfully shy, he’s an obsessive loner who structures his life around the same daily walks and other repetitive patterns, perpetually harboring a deep mistrust of feelings he can’t understand. Nevertheless, he poignantly blossoms in the company of fellow outcast Georgie, without the ambiguity that characterized Arndt’s performance.
England’s phenomenally expressive Georgie is a whirlwind of self-defeating manic extremes, the opposite of Parker’s cooly ironic cipher. Grifter, lover, damsel in distress — England cycles through Georgie’s multiple facets with pinpoint precision.
In Alex and Georgie’s connection with each other lies the play’s affirmation that, as its author once put it, “We have the capacity to make each other better than we are in isolation.” If these two people can manage that, maybe there’s hope for all of us.