Dallas — Sexual desire propels us beyond ourselves in seeking intimacy with others and ensures others seek intimacy with ourselves. Heisenberg, by Simon Stephens, and Actually, by Anna Ziegler, now showing as a double feature at Theatre Three, probe the ambiguity and urgency of desire in two complex couples. The plays are distinct but not totally different—the four characters (heterosexual couples in each play) struggle with ideas of self. Sex affords them opportunities to enflesh an otherwise illusive identity or else surrender doubts and other vagaries of self in the warm weight of another, at least temporarily. Coupling Heisenberg and Actually is an inspired choice. The plays move briskly, are well acted, and together make an important night of theater.
Heisenberg is set in modern London and begins with an odd encounter at a railway station. Georgie Burns (Jessica Cavanagh), an American woman in her 40s, has just kissed a much older stranger on the back of the neck. Before the stranger, Alex Priest (Kieran Connolly), can protest and distance himself, Georgie works him over pretty good with compliments and challenges that inaugurate him into the screwball tradition. The plot of a free-spirited woman dominating a relationship with a mild-mannered man, thus saving him from the drudgeries of routine, is well known. But the relationship in Heisenberg develops in an intriguing way. Early on, Georgie tells Alex, “You’re not so much a creature of routine as a psychopathic raging monster of it. And then I come along.” With that, Stephens acknowledges the influence that screwball dynamics have on his characters. But once that acknowledgement occurs, the formula’s familiar ground falls away and more interesting psychological terrain begins to appear. The dialogue keeps a robust pace and is especially nuanced; phrases of backstory and ambition accrete to body forth the searching intellect and warm desire of these people. By the end of scene two, Stephens has taught us how to listen to his play.
Georgie is a live wire, an inventive narrator of her own story. Truth about her circumstances in London—how she got there, where she lives, what she does for a living—is fluid. She’s out front about everything, but also very mysterious. Presumably, the title of the play connects her uniqueness with Werner Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty. I’m at sea when it comes to describing this connection—the math of particle positions and momentums is out of my league. It’s easier to say that none of us can know whether the next moment will be like any other moment or one that will change our lives. Georgie has a gift for finding the exotic in the everyday. Her embellishments aren’t so much dishonest as they are a means to celebrate interpretation and creativity. She’s building up momentum to convert the pain of the past into a future tense of joy. In some quantum way, she identifies Alex as her complementary variable, essential in her scheme of joy.
Georgie’s intensity toward Alex also articulates the erotic potentials of sexual difference. The age gap here is treated very differently than the smug assumptions Hollywood makes about older men and the much younger women who trip after them. Alex isn’t an icon of the cinema; he’s ordinary. He’s in his mid-70s and honest about the way time has changed his body. Time’s effect on him seems to activate Georgie’s enthusiasm all the more. Her pursuit of Alex is not the typical power arrangement; it’s a motivation very specific to her sense of self, flaming up from an elemental desire she readily expresses.
If the London-based Stephens is thinking Heisenberg thoughts about present day positions and momentums of that city, he situates them in the character of Alex.
Alex is quite old but hale, an Irishman who left Ireland to escape sadness. He has strong opinions and a thoughtful nature, but is isolated and marginalized. He works as a butcher, a profession that, regardless of its pragmatism and service, lies at the social fringe. He’s spiritual in a sense, regularly seeking council from his older sister who died as a child. In his thoughts, she’s aged as he has. This metaphysical inclination weighs Alex’s idealism (his craftsman’s sense of purpose, meditative walks, enthusiasm for music) against a sense of perplexity for modern London. He’s grown old without a wife or children and reckons with the notion that he’s losing his place in the world. Georgie’s affections aren’t so much redemptive as they are a reminder that life isn’t over till it’s over, and enlightenment comes to spirits that are open and mature.
Cavanagh is terrific as Georgie Burns. She has the perfect energy for Georgie’s fast talk and emotional fluidity. She’s curious, driven, funny—utterly irresistible. Connolly’s performance balances Alex’s austerity and passion. He portrays a serious sense of wonder; a trait so beguiling that Alex seems a long ways off from going over the hill. Jeffrey Schmidt directs the play with style, keeping things moving. The play benefits from this quickened pace. But there are also moments of doubt and misunderstanding that require pause. Schmidt handles these moments elegantly, and then deftly shifts the play back into high gear.
Schmidt's set design is minimal and the actors carry or scoot the elements on and off, themselves. A couple of blocks represent rows of seating at a railway station. A table stands for Alex's butcher shop, another table his bed. Jim Kuenzer's diegetic sound design fills in each scene: a door opens and we hear street sounds; Alex puts on a record and we hear the music. The effect of minimal design is to free Georgie and Alex from the workaday world and emphasize their rich inner lives.
Actually, directed by Tye—co-founder of Prism Movement Theater and making her T3 directorial debut—is built on two intense monologues that twist together like a helix. It’s a he said/ she said story about campus rape. Its plot rhythms are similar to procedurals; a criminal investigation with twists and turns. But it also delivers fascinating philosophical investigations into the sexuality of teenagers. At one point, Amber Cohen (Edna Gill)—who accuses her crush, Tom Anthony (Aaron Jay Green), of rape—observes that you never know what kind of sex you’ll have until you’re having it. It’s a very good point in the argument about consent. Specifically, it addresses the idea of a “willing victim.” Just because you want to be with somebody, having imagined a certain type of intimacy, and go to bed with that person, should that person then take a turn in the heat of the moment and initiate a type of sex that seems debasing or is painful—wouldn’t we call that a violation? Or maybe this is the sort of thing we’re expected to lock away in that trunk we keep hidden deep within ourselves; the one stuffed with humiliations we stay silent about.
Teenage sex is often fraught with awkwardness and lingering doubt. For an article in the New York Times called “What Teenagers are learning from Online Porn,” reporter Maggie Jones sat in on a Porn Literacy class in Boston and documented some of the discussion. The course was designed to reduce sexual and dating violence. One of the girls describes an encounter with someone who she really wanted to hook up with, but he wanted a more rigorous sex than she did. Now she wants boys to understand that the people in porn are professionals, and some of the stuff they do is painful without warm up or training. Other girls share their stories of uncomfortable, even painful sex. But none of them consider these encounters a crime.
Did Tom rape Amber? “Actually” is the word Amber utters when she leaves Tom’s bed. It’s not “no” but it’s not “yes” either. And no other words follow “actually” in that moment. What Amber means by “actually” falls into the mystery of what actually happened that night. A thick alcoholic haze occludes nearly everything. These young people drink a lot. But all this drinking doesn’t so much signal a lack of proportion and right-mindedness (the wild caprice of college years) as it does the troubling dilemma that they—not just Amber and Tom, but seemingly everybody on campus—is reckoning with the terrible possibility of never knowing anything of others and having nothing known of them. Amber and Tom speak about “acceptance” as though it’s the peak of a great mountain looming inscrutably ahead of them. It’s sad to me that love isn’t a feature in the terrain. Acceptance seems so elusive to these two that, I suppose, love is just too much to hope for or even wonder about. Alcohol is a means for putting a more convivial self forward. Drunkenness is preferable to crippling doubt.
Amber and Tom are 18 years old and beginning their freshman year at Princeton. You’d think they’ve got it made! They do feel privileged and at the same time bear the weight of cultural difference. Amber is Jewish and Tom is black; they’re campus minorities. They speak movingly on matters of difference, but are also groaningly myopic. Amber tells Tom his blackness is a great way to get into a good school. For Tom, Amber’s Jewishness is a quirk among many other quirks she has. At one point during a sexual misconduct hearing organized by the university (presided over by a committee of academics—a detail that gets its due ridicule), Amber recalls a moment when she looked across the aisle at Tom, who she’s there to accuse, and felt kinship. It’s a profound moment that recalls a long history of menacing judgments Jews and people of color have received from juries and other councils intending to “normalize” culture.
Amber and Tom relate everything to the audience. How they met, their individual backstories, what it’s like to be a new kid at Princeton, and details of the sexual misconduct hearing. They speak in turn, moving round each other when it’s time to tell their side, and somehow it’s obvious they’re don’t share the same space. It’s as though the audience is a private audience for each of them. And events don’t unfold in a linear way. There are flashbacks and asides. Ziegler is such a talented writer that the rapid transitions don’t confuse, but instead create an exciting velocity. Each shift in perspective adds an important detail to the case. The characters are sharp, with recourse to language that keeps their insights and complaints sounding fresh, never trite or whiney. There’s also plenty of humor. The audience learns much in a short time, but is left in the end with a tragedy shrouded in mystery: how could two people who like each other, who are so bright and want to bring good into the world, place each other in such a crucible of experience?
As Amber and Tom, Gill and Green are excellent. The tortured confusion and grace notes of their characters ring true. I hung on every word they said.
Because Theatre Three is in-the-round, the actors keep swirling as the narrative unfurls, so to address each station of the audience. Green, true to Tom’s assertiveness, makes eye contact with as many people as he can. Gill, in keeping with Amber’s insecurities, focuses safely on the middle distance. The characters move us back and forth in time and across several locations, a whorl of activity that director Tye choreographs with skill.
As with Heisenberg, Schmidt's design is minimal. Transitions are signaled by the actors, who make distinct and artful movements for every change of location or frame of mind. Kuenzer's sound design adds emphasis to these transitions. He's created a mechanized whirling sound to signal these warps in the narrative. It's a fun and helpful feature within the play's purling flux of memory and testimony.
The narrative, for all its complexities, is delivered clearly and concisely. Although you won’t hear a verdict, you’ll leave with opinions.
» After the 2:30 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Aug. 19, there will be a panel featuring members of local advocacy groups to speak to the timely issues in Actually. The evening will cover several triggering topics, including Title IX (the law that states a school becomes legally responsible when their response to harassment “is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.”), sexual assault, and the urgent understanding of consent. The panel includes Lisa Miller of Hope Rising; trauma specialist Dr. Christy Sim; and representatives from the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center; as well as the cast of Actually.
» Richard Bailey is a filmmaker and arts writer who lives in Dallas. He's written for Glasstire, and his films have been selected for several festivals, including AVIFF Cannes Catalog, Berlin Experimental, Chicago Arthouse, Dallas VideoFest, and SXSW.