Simon Stephens, Melbourne Theatre Company
Arts Centre, until July 3
When a writer uses quantum mechanics as a metaphor, I always feel a twinge of foreboding. It's such a lazy cliche that it’s usually a sign the artist either doesn’t get the physics on more than a Wikipedia level, or they can’t wrest depth from life on a human scale.
With Heisenberg, Simon Stephens falls into the latter category. The titular German physicist's famous uncertainty principle is invoked – in passing – as a kind of intellectual Viagra to firm up an otherwise flaccid two-hander, one that struggles for profundity against a strong inclination to the opposite.
The unlikely couple meets at a train station.Credit:Pia Johnson
The result is an offbeat romantic comedy drama that never hits home because you can’t quite suspend your disbelief enough to imagine the characters as real human beings. And that leaves the performers a bit stranded.
The scenario sees Georgie (Kat Stewart), an American woman in her forties, buttonhole an elderly stranger at a London train station. Alex (Peter Kowitz) is bemused by the exchange: the quiet, Irish butcher and lifelong bachelor is unused to the attention, and suspicious of it.
Soon the chance meeting turns into something implausible and entirely predictable, as the mismatched couple – each orbiting a black hole of grief – find each other on a familiar event horizon of platitude and sentimentality.
Kat Stewart and Peter Kowitz don’t have much to work with.Credit:Pia Johnson
Perhaps there's some Rubik’s cube casting solution that could transfigure the mercilessly middlebrow, forced-sounding dialogue into something greater (it would require the starriest line-up – maybe Bill Nighy and Renee Zellweger?) but the valiant efforts of Kowitz and Stewart leave you feeling the play is too shallow and uninspired even to make a decent histrionic vehicle.
Stephens' Heisenberg has less emotional intelligence than Pretty Woman.
To be fair, the actors don't get much help. Anna Borghesi’s set seems like it's a quarter finished: it's almost passive aggressive in its incompleteness. With rare exceptions, Bronwyn Pringle’s lighting doesn’t help shape the performances, nor carry its share of emotion.
Stewart keeps one mystery going with a feigned ditziness disguising ulterior motives, but she can’t seem to corral all the brittle extroversion into something more than the sum of its mannerisms. It’s an attractive, if slightly nutty, articulation of surface that only stays on the surface.
Simon Stephens has written better works.Credit:Pia Johnson
Kowitz is so placid and unprepossessing it undermines the credibility of the love story, which in any event lacks intimacy and focus. By the time he unlocks a heart of gold (what else?), we’re so adrift in glib life advice and cheap sentiment it’s almost impossible to feel anything.
Director Tom Healey can wring nuanced performances, but he’s battling insurmountable odds here. Stephens' play has less emotional intelligence than Pretty Woman. After the high of his adaptation of Curious Incident, presented by MTC last year, this is an unexpected disappointment.
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