Exceptional individuals seem to hold a powerful attraction for Simon Stephens. The British playwright created one such memorable stage character in Christopher Boone, the boy math whiz in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Georgie Burns — the eccentric American woman in “Heisenberg,” a slight if gracefully written two-character play commissioned by the Manhattan Theater Club — is another kind of exceptional individual, the kind of unstable person you normally avoid making eye contact with. Lucky for her, Georgie is played by Mary-Louise Parker, who has a rare gift for sympathetic portraits of the weirdos of the world.
It’s the evening rush hour at St. Pancras train station in London. But this must be taken on faith, since there are few visual or sound cues to set the scene on the narrow stage of this black-box studio space. Georgie, the attractive middle-aged American played by Parker, is hanging about the station hoping that her British-born husband will show up — although we soon find out, first, that her husband is dead, and then, that he never existed in the first place.
At least, that’s the story Georgie hands Alex Priest (Denis Arndt), a 75-year-old butcher whose acquaintance she has just made by kissing this perfect stranger on the neck. Despite that kiss, there’s nothing planned about this meeting. It’s just one of those random human connections suggested, perhaps, by the scribe’s romantic if unscientific reading of the atomic physicist Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle.”
The strongest impression we get of Georgie is that she always speaks her mind, even when she’s lying through her teeth. “Do you find me exhausting, but captivating?” she asks Alex days later, after tracking him down to the failing butcher shop he owns in Islington. Alex does, in fact, think Georgie is fascinating, especially after she launches an all-out charm offensive that he finds both flattering and demeaning. On their first actual date, she compliments him on his beautiful eyes, and in the next breath, laughs at him for being so “unbelievably old.”
By this time, Georgie has already made up her mind to sleep with this friendless and profoundly isolated old guy. Her enthusiastic seduction has a transformative effect on Alex, cracking his protective shell and releasing feelings he’s kept bottled up for years. Arndt, who has been carefully husbanding Alex’s displays of emotion until now, allows him a rare sweet smile that’s as revealing as any wordy soliloquy — and far more moving.
But what registers as a huge event for Alex isn’t really much of a dramatic payoff, and this two-hander never shakes off the impression it gives of being an advanced writing exercise in character building. (“Okay, class, listen up. Final exam will be to write a scene study of a brief encounter between two oppositional characters.”)
Helmer Mark Brokaw has directed the production as a delicate tone piece, keeping the stage dark and the movement to a minimum, the better to focus on the actors’ faces. Parker has always had an affinity for stormy characters, from “Hedda Gabler” on Broadway to eight seasons as Nancy Botwin on Showtime’s “Weeds,” so Georgie is in safe hands. In the close quarters of MTC’s studio theater, it’s an education in acting craft to watch Georgie’s volatile moods and turbulent thoughts play out in Parker’s quicksilver performance. No wonder Alex was smitten.