CityRep's HEISENBERG Sparkles at Civic Center's CitySpace Stage
Writing a successful play with only two actors and very minimal technical elements can be quite a challenge. How do you maintain the energy? Keep the plot driving forward? Hold the audience's interest and attention? Playwright Simon Stephens has accepted and answered those challenges with his surprising and stellar play, Heisenberg, now receiving a production from CityRep at the Civic Center's CitySpace venue.
As with many things, the less you know going in, the better. This is a short play, the curtain speech put it at around eighty minutes, with no intermission. Its story revolves around a chance meeting between two strangers at a London train station. One day, while minding his own business, butcher shop owner Alex is kissed on the neck by an American woman named Georgie. That sudden unexpected event draws Alex and Georgie into a whirlwind relationship that may surprise them as much as it does the audience. What follows is a pleasure to watch as their ups and downs together play out in a very high-energy and emotional roller coaster of a play.
Stephens has an undeniable knack for dialogue that is very real and natural, every moment sounds like one you might have had yourself. There are totally natural and relatable moments of awkwardness, uncomfortable silences, joyous exclamations and shocking revelations, all written in a way that any audience member from any age and any walk of life can understand. Making the dialogue, characters and scenes so relatable and universal is not easy but Stephens accomplishes it with seeming ease. He keeps things very lively and witty when that is called for but also drops a perfectly placed bomb into the proceedings and gives it just the right reverberations.
For the most part, director Ruth Charnay leaves the heavy lifting to the writing and the acting, letting her performers truthfully and organically live out the lives of these characters. Either that, or she directed them so well in how to respond and react naturally and normally, that she made it seem as if she was never even there. She also manages to keep the pace up, making the play move quickly when it should but also slow down when it's called for, with the whole evening feeling like it takes just the right amount of time.
Having said that, the production's major flaw comes from some surprising directing choices related to the blocking or placing of actors. It's always a challenge directing in the round or a three-quarter space, with seating on three sides. Often, the center section of the audience gets the front of faces while the side sections see backs and profiles. This was the opposite, to the extreme. One-third of the audience, the center (or "south" as it's called) section, spent way too much time staring at the backs of the actors. The most egregious moment of this came at one of the play's most pivotal moments, when a huge bomb is dropped in the middle of the action. One actor is placed at a corner of the playing area, sitting in a chair, so that an entire section of the audience cannot possibly see his face or see how he responds to what is happening (from where I was sitting, I could not see any part of his body at all).
This kind of staging is extremely frustrating for any paying audience member who then discovers that he or she can't even see what is going on during important moments of the play. It's a disservice to the audience, who need to see the faces and eyes of the actors, especially in a small, intimate space like the CitySpace. It's also a disservice to the actors who are putting in so much time, effort and work, only to have that wasted due to the fact that a portion of the audience cannot see the masterful work they are doing.
Speaking of that, the two actors in this production are doing masterful work, there is no doubt about it, which makes the blocking choices even worse. They are so equally talented, charismatic and charming, not enough can be said about the quality of their time on stage together. As Georgie Burns, Stacey Logan gives a master class on how to fully, enthusiastically and energetically inhabit a character. She truly becomes Georgie and we never doubt her performance for a second. It is a very complex character that she creates so perfectly, one that can be sympathetic, lovable, confusing, devious, likable and unlikable, among other characteristics. Sometimes, there are changes between those qualities that happen in the blink of an eye, so fast you can't keep up. At other times, these different and competing qualities blend and merge together or they come and go like lingering gentle breezes, where you aren't even sure one was there before the next arrives.
Logan has exceptional chemistry with Ben Hall as Alex Priest, the much older Londoner who owns a butcher shop and lives a very routine life, filled with old habits and traditions. Priest is wonderful in every moment, from the very first time he meets the spirited Georgie, right up until the very end of what we see of their relationship. Hall has a great talent for creating a character who is introverted and keeps many things on the inside, while allowing flashes of emotions to sparkle in his eyes. He is quiet and brooding, somewhat shy, and very relatable and lovable. The audience can't help but fall in love with him as he moves from confusion about this other person to deeply caring for her and then loving her in an unexpected way.
The Civic Center's CitySpace is really an ideal venue for this play, its intimacy perfectly showcases the writing and acting that drives everything. Ben Hall's set design also keeps things very simple, just two tables and two chairs and a brick wall, perfectly allowing the actors to create every scene and moment without ever distracting from them. Lloyd Cracknell's costume design is appropriate and unobtrusive. The same cannot be said, though, for some of Tristan Decker's lighting choices. A scene in a restaurant is lit way too dimly and, much worse, a scene in New Jersey has the actors bathed in green light, which is distracting and not appropriate at all.
As long as you can ignore the strange lighting and make sure that you are sitting in one of the side sections of the audience, you will be treated to a phenomenally acted and written play that deserves your attention. CityRep is also deserving of your attention and applause, for bringing this regional premiere to Oklahoma City before other major cities in the area have had the opportunity to stage it. Make sure to see it while it's here.
HEISENBERG will be presented in the CitySpace Theatre at The Civic Center Music Hall located at 201 N Walker Ave, Oklahoma City, OK 73102. Tickets are $8 for Students, Teachers and Military Personnel (with ID), $25 (groups of eight or more), $35 (matinees) and $40 (evening performances), and may be purchased by calling the Civic Center Box Office at (405) 297-2264 or online at www.cityrep.com. Performances run through Sunday, February 11th, with show times on Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 1:30pm and 7:30pm, and Sunday at 1:30pm.