“Do you find me exhausting but captivating?” asks Georgie, an American woman living in London, of Alex, a much older Englishman whose stolid unresponsiveness borders on the autistic. The radiant Laura Coover, who plays Georgie, is indeed captivating and also exhausting, in her jittery self-consciousness and endless, over-sharing monologues. But the play itself—“Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle,” British writer Simon Stephens’ 2015 two-hander making its Chicago debut under the direction of Nate Cohen—is just wearing, its half-hour’s worth of dramatic content stretched painfully into ninety-five minutes of ponderous storytelling.
The play’s title—a reference to physicist Werner Heisenberg’s 1927 discovery that it is impossible for an observer to precisely discern both the position and velocity of a particle—suggests a Tom Stoppard-like drama of ideas, illustrating the deeper forces at work beneath surface phenomena. But instead of Stephen Hawking and quantum mechanics, what we get is that hoariest of Hollywood clichés, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a chaotically sexy force of nature who appears out of the blue to reinvigorate the dreary existence of a sad, lonely guy. There’s no uncertainty at all in the way the story navigates from its initial bleak premises and damaged characters toward a romcom-style resolution.
The plot begins with a surprise kiss placed by the pretty, seemingly scatterbrained Georgie on the seventy-five-year-old neck of Alex (played by Scott Anderson, who looks considerably younger), a London butcher who lives an isolated life of unvarying, cow-hacking routine. Rather than summoning the nearest bobby, Alex plays along with her relentless, teasingly aggressive flirtation, punctuated with gratuitous profanity, before finally delivering the play’s most truthful, believable line: “Why are you talking to me?”
Why indeed? Playwright Stephens posits two opposing possibilities: either Georgie is genuinely attracted to this dour, graceless butcher, who could pass for her elderly uncle, or she has an unspoken agenda, perhaps involving the runaway son whose long absence haunts her.
As the story wends its way toward an underwhelming conclusion, we learn that both possibilities are to some extent true, depending on how and when you look at the situation. The play’s point isn’t so much that people are complex and multilayered; it’s that they have no fixed character at all. Today’s calculating hustler or repressed and miserly shopkeeper is tomorrow’s starry-eyed, impulsive romantic. It’s pure fantasy, as is the idea that young lovelies pursue aging, socially awkward men, rather than the other way around. But this is the universe of “Heisenberg”: a place of feel-good plot devices pretentiously packaged as cosmic truths.
The leads give intelligent, compelling performances in what surely qualifies as an actor’s play. Although too young for the part, Coover captures Georgie’s strategic ditsiness, which overlays a formidable will. Anderson is low-key and totally convincing as Alex, a decent man who over the years has withdrawn from the world and now wanders through life like a stoically unhappy ghost. He says relatively little, but each line speaks volumes, as when he tells Georgie: “I just get disappointed in other people.” (And kudos to him and dialect coach Adam Goldstein for his spot-on accent.) But there’s only so much either actor can do with characters that don’t develop within a scenario that lacks dramatic intensity. Stephens’ pause-filled dialogue is perhaps meant to evoke Harold Pinter, but whereas Pinter’s silences are pregnant with implication, these seem more like dead air.
Following the playwright’s directive that “the stage should be as bare as possible,” with walls and props visible throughout, set designer Garrett Bell and properties designer Paloma Locsin have crafted a space that’s as empty as the characters’ lives prior to their meeting. While this works on a metaphorical level, it has an unfortunate side effect, converting the boxy Raven space into a hard-surfaced echo chamber that gives both voices a tinny, unnatural timbre.
“Heisenberg” isn’t exactly a bad play: it’s just a thin, slow-moving one, driven by a male ambivalence about women that portrays the female protagonist less as a human being than a kind of shape-shifting femme fatale. Aiming for philosophical profundity, the play settles for wispy conventionality. We learn only that people aren’t particles, and while subatomic motions can be random, plotting and characterization cannot.
“Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle,” Griffin Theatre Company at Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark (773)338-2177, griffintheatre.com, $40 with discounts available. Through March 26.