Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Review: The play's not the thing

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Joneal Joplin and Susan Louise O'Connor
Photo: John Gitchoff
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The best things about the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis studio production of the 2015 comedy/drama Heisenberg by Simon Stephens (whose wonderful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time opened the Rep's mainstage season) are the parts that are, as they say in the restaurant biz, locally sourced. That includes the stellar performances by Joneal Joplin and Susan Louise O'Connor, the thoughtful direction by Rep Artistic Director Steve Woolf, and the subtle but effective sound design by Rusty Wandall.

The worst thing about it, unfortunately, is the script. Commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it was performed by Mary Louise Parker and author/actor Denis Arndt, Heisenberg chronicles the developing relationship between Alex Priest, a quiet London butcher in his mid-seventies with an comprehensive love of music, and Georgie Burns, a forty-ish transplanted American with a flexible notion of truth.

They first meet in a railway station where Georgie has just kissed Alex on the back of the neck, claiming that she mistook him for her late husband. It's a bizarre story and, as it turns out, a wholly fictitious one, along with most of the autobiography that emerges from her long comic monologue. As written, Georgie is manic, self-obsessed, and chronically dishonest--basically the sort of person most of us would cross the street to avoid. And yet Alex not only becomes emotionally involved very quickly but, even more improbably, joins her in a quixotic quest to reconnect with her adult son, who has fled to America and has forcefully severed all ties to her.

The relationship between the two feels arbitrary and unmotivated, and the play itself feels like a seriocomic sketch that has gotten too big for its britches. That might be because, as Emmeline McCabe reports in her program note, the playwright made no attempt to plot out the script in advance but instead "was inspired by the idea of not knowing where something is or where it is going"—a very free interpretation of the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle which gives the show its title. The result is a play that lacks any real dramatic shape and feels unfinished.

For me, ultimately, the rewards of this production came from watching two very talented actors create a credible relationship out of this material. Mr. Joplin's beautifully understated Alex is a subtle masterpiece, shaping a warm and sympathetic human being. Early on, Georgie accurately describes Alex as "not so much a creature of routine as a psychopathic raging monster of it." Watching him emerge from the cocoon of that routine is immensely gratifying.

Ms. O'Connor is just as impressive, rattling off Georgie's gargantuan line load in a way that makes it look as though she's riffing on the spot, and finding moments of vulnerability and even humanity in what is, for the most part, a pretty annoying character. Georgie talks a lot but reveals very little of herself; Ms. O'Connor givers her more depth than the playwright does.

Peter and Margery Spack's simple rectangular set divides the black box space in half, with the audience lined up facing each other on the long sides of the rectangle. The arrangement could have created sight line issues, but Mr. Woolf's blocking takes that into account, and his pacing keeps the show moving while still allowing room for it to breathe. This is, in short, a production that gives the script every possible advantage.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Heisenberg continues through November 12 in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For me, the strong acting and direction didn't compensate for the weakness of the material, but your mileage may vary.

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