Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt bring Simon Stephens’ nontraditional romance to Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway stage.

Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker in Simon Stephens' Heisenberg, directed by Mark Brokaw at MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker in Simon Stephens' Heisenberg, directed by Mark Brokaw at MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Preordained partners or misguided fools? Every love story ever put to paper could be interpreted either way, depending on your level of optimism and your willingness to believe in a divine hand — so the stories suggest — that guides two protagonists to their happily-ever-after.

Simon Stephens (best known as the Tony-winning adapter of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) makes it as difficult as possible to see his tale of unlikely lovers as anything destined or written in a heavenly map. His two-hander Heisenberg, directed by Mark Brokaw, comes to Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway stage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre following an off-Broadway run with MTC in the summer of 2015 and brings with it original stars Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt. Parker reprises her performance as Georgie Burns, a quirky, bordering-on-insufferable 43-year-old American woman who's lost touch with her son, while Arndt returns to the role of Alex Priest, a charming yet dull 75-year-old Irishman who owns and runs a foundering butcher shop in London.

In most narratives, the age difference alone would disqualify Georgie and Alex from potential romance. But Stephens plays by his own rules in this wandering story, which opens after Georgie plants a kiss on the back of Alex's neck at a train station (a strange choice made even stranger by the fact that she's never met him before). For the remaining 80 minutes, there's nothing to even vaguely suggest where we might be headed, but Parker and Arndt keep us deeply invested in each of their erratic movements.

It's this unassuming unpredictability that gives the play its scientific name, inspired by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Over a dinner date, the motormouthed Georgie explains the concept to Alex in one of her rambling tangents, "If you watch something closely enough you realize you have no possible way of telling where it's going or how fast it's getting there."

Stephens wraps the play in this metaphor of "uncertainty," which he presents as a principle governing much more than just the particles that make up our physical world. Fortunately, he draws this parallel with a light enough hand that Georgie and Alex remain human beings and not mouthpieces for a grand philosophical theory. They're more like cells in a Petri dish (enhanced by the placement of audience members both on and off the stage). Their lives turn and collide in unpredictable ways (maneuverable tables and chairs in Mark Wendland's set offer few additional clues about their trajectory). But unlike your traditional romantic comedy, the surprise twists don't add up to any symmetrical shape we could call "bashert."

Arndt, making his Broadway debut at the age of 77, is captivating as the routine-bound Alex, whose life can be summed up by silent days at his butcher shop followed by long walks through London. Playing a man of very few words, Arndt is a master at drawing empathy from silence, pairing the soul of an old man with the wonder of a 10-year-old boy every time Georgie unlocks a new door in his dormant existence (the most delightful instance of which involves a perfectly ill-fitting jean jacket from costume designer Michael Krass). Parker, whose job is to essentially steamroll her scene partner into submission, fills the stage with relentless chatter but still allows for Arndt's silences to register with the audience and cut through her own character's calloused psyche.

As a frenetic, desperate, and compulsively lying woman, Georgie is not likely to earn the label of "charming" — even from those most drawn to the manic pixie dream girl trope. But Parker's subtle displays of vulnerability make us root for the unorthodox connection Georgie has found with this older man, who is oddly enchanted by her and who simultaneously seems to hold the key to her own fragile sense of stability. It's not the makings of a fairy-tale ending — Georgie and Alex's age difference alone guarantees a short window for carefree happiness. But when all those tomorrows are uncertain to begin with, the only thing left to say is, Why not?

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Closed: December 11, 2016