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Review: Heisenberg’s appeal lies in its unpredictability

David Schurmann plays Alex and Carly Street plays Georgie, two strangers who meet in Heisenberg.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Canadian Stage

Title
Berkeley Street Theatre
Written by
Simon Stephens
Directed by
Matthew Jocelyn
Actors
Carly Street, David Schurmann

During his time at Canadian Stage, Matthew Jocelyn has hired protesters to picket outside his openings ("Live theatre is Krapp!"), has had actors shoot polar-bear rugs out of the sky on stage, and has blasted speed metal at his audiences.

But for his final show as artistic director of the Toronto not-for-profit theatre company, Jocelyn has chosen to go out quietly – with a low-key, low-stakes two-hander by his go-to British playwright, Simon Stephens.

Heisenberg, as the drama is titled, begins when Georgie (Carly Street), a 42-year-old American woman, walks up behind Alex (David Schurmann), a 75-year-old Irish-born butcher, and kisses him on the neck in a London train station.

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This seems to be a case of mistaken identity. But Georgie nevertheless strikes up a conversation with Alex, or, rather, talks at him at length. She changes subject from one moment to the next, fills her speech with off-putting profanity and put-downs – and carefully walks a line between kooky harmless and kooky threatening.

"Why are you talking to me?" Alex, who has been quiet and cagey in the first scene, finally asks. "I'm sorry, I'm really weird," is all Georgie has to offer in return, but the question lingers.

In the next scene, Georgie surprises Alex by showing up at his butcher shop – "I Googled you" – and speaks more honestly to him about her life, her ex who lives in Amsterdam, and the 19-year-old son who left for the United States and has asked her never to contact him again. Alex remains at a remove and with his guard up – but, eventually, starts to share his own life as a loner. He lost his sister and parents at a young age and never married. The two go for dinner and talk about tango, crying and missing people. Is this a love story, or something else?

You can't quite tell where Heisenberg is going to go from scene to scene – and just when you think you've got a handle on one of its unusual pair of characters, he or she does something unexpected but never outrageous. This unpredictability is probably the most appealing quality of Stephens's script and perhaps explains, if not quite justifies, it being named after the physicist who came up with the uncertainty principle. (There is a brief direct mention of that in the dialogue – but it feels shoehorned in and self-consciously writerly.)

Jocelyn has directed the show in the round with the actors moving about on a bare wooden stage designed by Teresa Przybylski with a charmingly shuddery revolve at its centre. Each scene begins, strikingly, with a strong movement followed by a short blackout – and, cheekily, Jocelyn's voice telling us the location in London where the scene takes place over the Berkeley Street Theatre's sound system.

The minimalist, slightly distanced approach leaves Stephens's play quite exposed (not always to its benefit) – and leaves the the actors to themselves. Schurmann, a long-time journeyman actor with the Shaw Festival, gives a very strong performance that is most compelling in its silences. In the final scenes, I started to detect an element of his old Shaw style at its stagiest creeping in, but over all, I found his work fresh and alive.

Street, meanwhile, navigates the zig-zags of Georgie's quirky dialogue impressively, but somewhat technically – with funny voices and a herky-jerky physicality that hovers on the edge of sketch comedy. I could see that she was deep inside her character, feeling emotions, but she never made me feel them. "I don't feel, I think," Alex says at one point, and that pretty much summed up my experience of this play, which has been staged to mixed reaction on both Broadway and in the West End.

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Some of the plays Jocelyn has chosen to stage during his eight years at Canadian Stage have been obscure, but intriguing; others, such as Melissa James Gibson's THIS and Stephens's Harper Regan, underexposed but essential. This is the first that seems overexposed.

I do, in the end, I find it very odd that in his eight seasons at Canadian Stage, Jocelyn never found a text, old or new, by a playwright living in Toronto or even Canada interesting enough to tackle as a director himself.

Too odd to be insulting, really. But a missed opportunity that will always remain missed now.

Heisenberg (canadianstage.com) continues to Dec. 17.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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