James Carpenter and Sarah Grace Wilson play the presumably odd couple in American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Heisenberg.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

James Carpenter and Sarah Grace Wilson play the presumably odd couple in American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Heisenberg.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Much about ACT’s ‘Heisenberg’ feels very familiar

You don’t need to know anything about early-20th-century German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” to understand British playwright Simon Stephens’ “Heisenberg,” now at American Conservatory Theater.

But Stephens purposefully conceived his boy-meets-girl (or rather septuagenarian-meets-42-year-old) two-hander in relation to Heisenberg’s theory: In observing a phenomenon, the observer affects the phenomenon, making accurate measurement impossible — and therefore unpredictability inevitable.

In “Heisenberg,” which premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2015, by the end of a six-week relationship, both characters have behaved in at least somewhat surprising ways.

When the play begins, cheerful force-of-nature Georgie, an American ex-pat in London, has just slipped up behind a complete stranger, Alex, a quiet, 75-year-old Irish butcher, at a train station and kissed him on the back of the neck. It was apparently an impulse on her part.

“Do you find me exhausting but captivating?” she asks him merrily at one point early on.

He doesn’t know quite what to think — she likes to “make things up,” she says, so it’s hard for Alex, who’s honest and plainspoken, to know when she’s lying and when she’s telling the truth.

But soon enough it doesn’t really matter: The two lonely opposites need each other and the relationship takes a course that, while unusual because of the age gap, is actually rather predictable.

In fact, it’s a fairly familiar trope of plays and movies — the buttoned-down, repressed man (“I don’t feel. I think,” Alex tells Georgie sternly) and the zany, free-spirited young woman who seduces him and loosens him up.

The hour-and-a-half-long play is directed here by Hal Brooks on a clean, spare stage (sets and lights by Alexander V. Nichols) with nifty pop-up furniture to suggest the various indoor and outdoor settings, and that’s all that’s needed.

Because Georgie propels the action, she’s the main character. So it’s unfortunate that Sarah Grace Wilson overacts and lacks the quirky charm that the role requires in order for stolid Alex fall in love with her. She is in fact way more exhausting than captivating.

As Alex, James Carpenter’s deep listening, bemused reactions and innate sense of Alex’s profound dignity and decency make his character, in the end, the more interesting one.

Scientific theories notwithstanding, “Heisenberg” is ultimately a romantic comedy that doesn’t necessarily put a new spin on May-December affairs but at moments is insightful about the vagaries of love, whatever your age.

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes April 8
Tickets: $15 to $110
Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org

ACTAmerican Conservatory TheaterHal BrooksHeisenbergJames CarpenterSarah Grace WilsonSimon StephensTheaterWerner Heisenberg

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Construction in the Better Market Street Project between Fifth and Eighth streets is expected to break ground in mid-2021.<ins></ins>
SFMTA board to vote on Better Market Street changes

Agency seeks to make up for slimmed-down plan with traffic safety improvements

A view of Science Hall at the City College of San Francisco Ocean campus on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
CCSF begins search for next chancellor amid new challenges

‘It’s arguably the biggest single responsibility the board has,’ trustee says

Some people are concerned that University of California, San Francisco’s expansion at its Parnassus campus could cause an undesirable increase in the number of riders on Muni’s N-Judah line.<ins></ins>
Will UCSF’s $20 million pledge to SFMTA offset traffic woes?

An even more crowded N-Judah plus increased congestion ahead cause concern

From left, Natasha Dennerstein, Gar McVey-Russell, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Jan Steckel and Miah Jeffra appear in Perfectly Queer’s fifth anniversary reading on Jan. 20.<ins> (Courtesy photo)</ins>
Perfectly Queer reading series celebrates fifth anniversary

Online event features five writers, games, prizes

(Robert Greene/Tribune News Service)
As tensions grow over vaccinations and politics, California lawmakers face threats from public

Anti-vaccine speakers hint at gun violence during routine budget hearing at state Capitol

Most Read