by Simon Stephens
by Anna Ziegler
directed by Jeffrey Schmidt
Jessica Cavanagh – Georgie Burns
Kieran Connolly – Alex Priest
directed by Katy Tye
Edna Gill – Amber
Aaron Jay Green – Tom
Scenic Design – Jeffrey Schmidt
Costume Design – Korey Kent
Lighting Design – Lisa Miller
Sound Design – Jim Kuenzer
Stage Manager – Cathy O’Neal
Rehearsal Stage Manager – Lauren Volz
Production Assistant – Kaylor Winter-Roach
Reviewed Performance: 8/6/2018
Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Wherever each play takes its premise (for both, one man and one woman attempting to grow out of a rattling first encounter, while exploring the difficulties of the human condition and the relationships we stumble into and out of as we struggle to understand it), you figure the only way a thing like this could falter would be as the illusory result of preliminarily elevated standards. Though it turns out there’s a second at-risk element – the concord between, if not the pieces, their productions. Heisenberg and Actually, conjoined in an inspired move by respective directors Jeffrey Schmidt and Katy Tye, reflect aspects of each other structurally and thematically, and share coincidental details. But they’re tonally distinct, and they assign their actors different challenges, leaving it up to the audience to reconcile any gulf between effects, when the teams hit different targets via different styles of marksmanship.
Though only Actually could be called “hot button” – it’s about campus sexual assault, which of course so loudly signals Intent to Message that certain patrons will regrettably miss the show’s strident objectivity and equanimity, having steeled themselves – neither piece is much more difficult or less impactful than the other. Both, in different ways, insist that the audience entertain the idea that genuine love can arise, however scarred, from toxic interpersonal arrangements. But if we allow a few generalizations about the older, whiter, lives-in-Texas crowd you usually see filling out houses at these sorts of things, I get a kick out of how the play classifiable as protest comes after the play classifiable as a crowd-pleaser. Of course, Heisenberg isn’t merely bait; its less overt, and sometimes better handled, complexities prime one for Actually’s out-and-out debate. (Each tiptoes past an hour, divided by an intermission).
Titled for the physicist whose name you first heard in school or through Bryan Cranston’s clenched teeth (but not in this play), Heisenberg is a long, cracked meet cute, set in London with eyes toward my home state New Jersey – which, in a move as seamless as a cow isn’t, is where Actually takes place. It starts in the thick of the action, a tack winningly repeated, and lets us gradually figure out which of our peculiar protagonists we’re more unnerved and more charmed by. It’s no contest, really: both are both things at once. The more forbidding and more inviting eccentricities ebb and flow inside each human, contained and revealed in stealthy doses by the humans inhabiting them so shrewdly and completely – Jessica Cavanagh as ravenously mercurial Georgie, and Kieran Connolly as uncomfortably complacent Alex. Perilously stubborn, they consistently bewilder each other, yet we relate to each’s reactions.
Heisenberg unfolds like an exercise in unlikely compatibility, with Stephens burying himself a kernel of possible positive resolution in a small thicket of irreconcilable traits and then starting to probe. And I can conceive of its central duo landing as annoying, convoluted, opaque, cutesy, or just disagreeably wrong for one another, despite the improvised narratives they conjure up for themselves. But I can’t imagine it, because Cavanagh and Connolly are doing such magnificent work. With Cavanagh, the thrill is watching her start with easy-win comic whimsy, a sort of hardship-stained manic pixie, and then letting flawlessly tailored and carefully tended deep feelings disrupt the surface. Connolly, playing the odder of two balls, gets us by abruptly snapping Alex’s quirks into place one by one, then letting his many eventual, delicate adaptions to the “normal” world suggested around him pull those choices’ sense into focus.
Heisenberg is the only time of the night you’ll see furniture, two stools and a table deployed with such stirring minimalist acuity I have vivid memories of invisible bedspread and invisible whatever they call the things they cover you with at train stations. Simmering with purpose from the beginning, Actually dispenses of everything but effects and bodies. The apotheosis of Lisa Miller’s lighting and Jim Kuenzer’s sound, together an exemplary essay into austerity, comes when a quick time-hop sucks us back into the club where the play’s Title IX action finds its genesis, a switch so effective you’ll get whiplash. Yet there’s no additional furnishing in the show, just twin rivers of illustrative exposition. Hinging as it does on two contradictory stories, the actors play to opposite sides of the house, and while director Tye has found moments of terrific, spare choreography, at times the performers’ treks beg sharper definition.
Because Actually hits capital-I issues head on (all handled by author Anna Ziegler with the same clear eye and unimpeachable ethics), it’s susceptible not just to the typical reactionary dissent from Team Cruel, but unflinching analyses from the better side of how sensitively and/or aggressively it fights the right fight. From where I stand, the play is inferably uncompromising about consent/respect/being a good person, and one of the best-considered, most open-minded extant treatises on any of it, so I’m content to go on tuning out the one faction and hoping the other is broadened by it. Yet as a critic, I note other vulnerabilities. Since the piece is presented as separate recollections rather than intimate chats, the chemistry that throws light on Heisenberg’s conclusions isn’t an available device. And the reportorial tone risks perfuming even the best ideals with didacticism, if played imperfectly.
Tye has hired two actors blessed with an old-soul knack for character inhabitance, for whom not-there-yet limitations are distant memories if memories at all. Yet I wasn’t sure every unsteadiness in Edna Gill’s Amber and Aaron Jay Green’s Tom was bestowed by their creators. Actually is a mature, thought-the-fuck-through dissertation, but it’s also one delivered by two college kids who, though smarter and savvier than the norm, are like most very young people somewhere short of enlightenment. It’s one of the trickier things an actor could be tasked with – portraying, with total physical and apparent mental conviction, someone whose intellectual and emotional deficiencies are both elusive and self-destructive. And Gill and Green have to play all that on reflection. Maybe it was the opening-night jitters so pervasive I noted them in the directors’ hands at curtain, but their efforts were a mite too palpable.
Gill has reasons to lean on the distance she layers between her and Amber – who struggles with her own skin, whose comedy is copious and snappily drafted, who’s kind of racist – but only when she’s bridged it, in moments of on-the-spot thought or unguarded emotion, do the persona and brilliant performance truly emerge. Watch her, though, for subtler beats she litters like mines. As for Green, Tom’s cockiness feels less than wholehearted, and also a little hindsight-starved for what amounts to a long retrospective monologue. And his teary moments straddle the line between expert and on-the-nose, less persuasive than something that cleanly executed should be (though maybe that’s why). Bar moments he’s called on to be seductive, his evident element, Green is best as Tom when he’s completely unleashed – when the pugnacity of cocky Tom and pain of sad Tom unite in a riveting bellow – or in throwaway sections where he doesn’t even notice how invested he is in the text until he slides right into a genius delivery. Still, I speak of imperfect human simulations of human imperfection, my one objection to a show – two! for the price of one, and for me, none! – put on so brilliantly I’d been spoiled halfway through (told ya). But human imperfection isn’t only thriving in the conceptual roots of these gorgeously insightful plays – being what they seem to agree makes life so compelling, no matter how tragic or lovely the conclusions messily wrought from said imperfections’ collisions are. Human imperfection is also key to the entire medium of live theatre: not only is the inexactitude and inexplicability of our behavior what the finest acting is after, each impermanent performance is an inevitably imprecise recreation, if not deliberate revision. Innumerable variations, unlikely to be anything but enrichments and improvements with this cast, these directors, this theatre, will occur each time the lights go down on this double bill, at different rates between the two shows. And however it goes down: how excited are you to go and see it?
HEISENBERG By Simon Stephens / ACTUALLY By Anna Ziegler
Directed by Jeffrey Schmidt / Directed by Katy Tye
Runs through August 26th
Thursdays at 7:30
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00
Sundays at 2:30
Norma Young Arena Stage
2800 Routh Street, #168
Dallas TX 75201