The Stupidity Principle: ‘Heisenberg’ at ACT


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“Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity”
– Hanlon’s Razor

Was it really that hard? Just two weeks ago I saw the ACT’s production of VietGone and was head-over-heels with the way it presented a story of genuine substance within the rigid confines of the rom-com genre. That play – which is still running at The Strand – featured an all-Asian cast presenting a great take on romance, sexism, racism, and even widely-held public perceptions about the Vietnam war. And it was a pretty sweet rom-com!

Ever wonder what its diametric opposite would be? This is it.

As I watched this pretentious, clichéd tribute to Manic Pixie Dream-Girlhood, I couldn’t help but think about what I’d learned of good and bad writers: when asked why a character does something, the good writer will tell the actor their motivation and let the audience know through action; the bad writer will simply say “because that’s what it says in the script”. With this being my first experience with a Simon Stephens play, my first impression is that he’s the latter.

Heisenberg at ACT - set

Set by Alexander V. Nichols. Photo by Me.

It began with a kiss. Mistaking him for a past love, Georgie Burns kisses the man sitting at the train station. The man, 75-year-old Alex Priest, is not her former love, but he is someone with whom she could fall in love. Through her ruthless persistence, the two engage in a whirlwind courtship that might not be built on the most solid of foundations.

Yeah, I know: that’s probably the shortest plot recap I’ve ever written for one of these reviews. Don’t blame me for that – there’s no story here. What’s worse, there are no characters in this two-person play. Georgie (played by Sarah Grace Wilson like a teen going through puberty, vocal changes and all) is a foul-mouthed neurotic prone to long-winded rambling and fudging the truth. Looking down at my notes, I see that I wrote “She might have Asperger’s?” within the first ten minutes of the show. I also have “MPDG” written several times later. Stephens tries to make her smart by having her cite the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to which the title alludes, but it goes nowhere. She’s supposed to be appealing with her blue language and Google-stalking of Alex, but she just comes off as grating.

And Wilson isn’t helped by the script’s inability to nail down Georgie’s nationality. I first thought her American accent was a choice, but we later learn that Georgie is American. Clearly Stephens has never been to this side of the Atlantic, because nothing about Georgie – her vocal inflections, her vernacular, her sentence structure – is from the US; it’s all British. Stephens trying to convince us that this character with this dialogue was intended to be American is as ridiculous as trying to say that James Bond, Harry Potter, and Mr. Darcy were meant to be American.

And what of her would-be love interest, the butcher she taunts for being “so unbelievably old”? As played by veteran actor James Carpenter (with whom I’ve worked before), the character is instantly believable as a mild-mannered old Irishman. Apparently, Stephens’ knowledge of Irishmen is abundant where his knowledge of women, American or otherwise, is lacking. The character also references unpredictability (and lack thereof) in an attempt for the title to make sense, but it still goes nowhere.

Sadly, the two actors have no chemistry together. In fact, I couldn’t help but notice that this “romantic comedy” features two leads who never kiss. At least, the characters never do – the opening mistaken kiss apparently takes place during a blackout. The actors themselves appeared to kiss right before they bowed, but Wilson looked so uncomfortable that it was cringe-inducing, even from my seat in the mezzanine.

Hell, that could be a metaphor for the entire play: sexy in the writer’s mind, but icky to the rest of the world.

What the play lacks in believable characters or dialogue this production more than makes up for technical prowess. Alexander Nichols’ set is as immediately striking in its design as it is inauspicious in its simplicity. The floor is a wood-paneled octagon that appears to have some Asian influence. Sheer dark curtains hang around it. As the play progresses, set pieces – benches, counters, a bed – rise and fall into the floor, leaving no trace of their presence after they’ve gone. Occasional projections (Nichols also did the lights) shine on the curtains to suggest restaurants and parks. There’s even the occasional disappearing and reappearing spot when a character moves away from the other. All in all, excellent work from Nichols, sound designer Bendan Aames, and the entire crew.

I’ve mentioned before how much I like Roger Ebert’s review of the film Living Out Loud. In it, he looks back on then-recent rom-com As Good as It Gets, saying it “[tried to] hammer [..] square pegs into round holes” with its characters who had no business being together. Such is the case with Heisenberg: it’s the work of a writer who laughed to himself thinking “Wouldn’t it be wild if these two folks got together?” Yet he never presents a single valid reason for them to be together, other than that’s what he’s written.

Heisenberg is a waste of the time and talent at its disposal. If you want to see ACT use those resources wisely, go see VietGone before it closes. You won’t regret it.


Heisenberg is scheduled to run until the 8th of April at the ACT’s Geary Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 90 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.