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First Nighter: Simon Stephens's "Heisenberg," Tom Jacobson's "The Twentieth-Century Way"

06/04/2015 12:07 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

Whether two things appearing simultaneously can be called a trend seems premature. But when they appear one on top of the other, they can at least be described as noticeable.

I'm talking about Simon Stephens's Heisenberg opening at Manhattan Theatre's Studio at Stage II only a day after Jesse Eisenberg's The Spoils bowed at Pershing Square Signature Center.

What they have in common are protagonists who are so alienating within minutes, if not seconds, of their appearance that it takes a strenuous effort at suspending disbelief to continue watching their extended shenanigans.

Since my assessment of Eisenberg's self-proclaimed film documentarian (the playwright takes on the role himself) appear in a previous review, I'll stick here to Stephens's 40-something American émigré Georgie Burns (Mary-Louise Parker), who strikes up a conversation with 75-year-old London butcher Alex Priest (Denis Arndt) at a train station.

"Conversation" might be an inaccurate description, however, since when Georgie grabs someone's ear, she doesn't allow too many responses. For part of her discourse she runs through autobiographical information. For part of it she speculates on the other person's psychological make-up--and assumes she's right, whether or not she is.

Though before Georgie rests her introduction, Alex hasn't bolted--thousands would have--she's not satisfied with the one exchange. Googling Alex, she discovers where his shop is located and barges in to resume her frenzied panegyric. Somehow, Alex doesn't cut her short--thousands would have--and before you can say "boo," Georgie has charmed him into a dinner date and then a stay-over at his place.

A romance ensues during which any number of questionable facts about Georgie emerge. She's already admitted that everything she told Alex at the train station was a lie. Now she informs the gullible meat tradesman that she wants to return to New Jersey to find the 21-year-old son who cut all ties with her two years earlier. She says she needs to borrow 15,000 pounds to make the trip. Not only does Alex hand it over--thousands wouldn't have--but he also insists on accompanying her.

Their New Jersey idyll doesn't pan out in the way of finding the vanished boy, and that failure might have spectators wondering whether there even is a lost son. The thought never crosses Alex's mind, of course. That's because Stephens--his Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time adaptation is picking up awards by the bushel; his Punk Rock also impressed many earlier this theater year--is intent on establishing Heisenberg as an offbeat stage romcom.

I'm usually in his corner and largely because he makes a habit of not repeating himself from play to play. (I'm especially fond of A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, written with David Eldridge and Robert Holman and yet to be produced in New York City.) With this one, however, I take issue. I'd say that the chemistry here is about the same as the chemical reaction between fire and water.

On the other hand, I like the directing and performing. Director Mark Brokaw and actors Parker and Arndt do a good deal to mitigate Stephen's miscalculations. While the script begs relaxed audience responses to Georgie, Parker--whom Brokaw directed in How I Learned to Drive and other outings--charges the dizzy dame with plenty of that acquired drive.
Brokaw has also ably guided Arndt to his depiction of a thoroughly likeable, well-meaning bloke. Alex's uncertainty about himself and his life as he faces old age is completely recognizable.

One thing about Brokaw's direction, though: From time to time it's surprisingly awkward and probably has to do with the corridor playing area Mark Wendland has set up. Because Parker and Arndt are required to confront across a long, relatively narrow space, Brokaw occasionally has them address each other from unrealistic distances. For instance, when Georgie drops in at Alex's store, she talks to (at?) him from at least 15 feet off. This isn't how it's done when customers are aware of the need to keep a butcher's attention as other customers arrive.

By the way, I have no idea why the Heisenberg title. Does it relate to the Heisenberg Theory, which has it that observed objects are affected by being observed? Maybe it does, but if so, I don't see the connection.

Thinking about the Heisenberg and Spoils central figures, I have a play I'd like to see. It's a collaboration between Eisenberg (rhymes with Heisenberg) and Stephens in which Georgie Burns (apparently no relation to the late George Burns) meets Ben and the two knock heads.
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Being around Brown (Will Bradley) and Warren (Robert Mammana)), the two men of The Twentieth-Century Way, isn't distancing in the same way as hanging around Georgie or Ben.

The challenge here is keeping up with what they're saying and what it means. Playwright Tom Jacobson bases his work on two actors selected in 1914 to impersonate homosexuals as part of an entrapment scheme cooked up by the Long Beach Police Department. The 90 minutes spent with them, at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater under Michael Michetti's direction, involves what appear to be theater games the men play in the form of auditions for the unpleasant assignment they're taking on.

Truth to tell, I found the drama (a co-production of The Theatre@Boston Court) rough going as one test followed another followed another. The action seems increasingly pretentious as the 90 minutes unfold. That's especially so when, for reasons I can't explain, Brown and Warren get to stripping not only their period outfits (Garry Lennon is the costumer) but also get to stripping their identities. They're no longer Brown and Warren but are suddenly (huh? wha?) Bradley and Mammana.

Maybe I can explain it, after all, but if I'm right, I'd just as soon I weren't. Perhaps, Jacobson--rather than just offering a fictional account of what transpired between actors/entrappers Brown and Warren as they executed their ugly assignments--is using the situation to make a statement about repressed homosexuality, a riff on what he suspects may have been true of Brown and Warren.

Possibly he's suggesting that stripping away civilization's discontents is the only way homosexual men can lead mentally healthy lives. Perhaps he sees that as the 20th century way. If so, he's set himself quite a slog to get there.