[NYC] HEISENBERG and VIETGONE (Manhattan Theatre Club): A weekend report

The cast of VIETGONE.

The cast of VIETGONE.

In New York over the weekend I saw two shows: HEISENBERG and VIETGONE. Both are under the auspices of the Manhattan Theatre Club. HEISENBERG has transferred to Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. VIETGONE, off-B’Way, is produced in association with South Coast Rep.

I initially wanted to see HEISENBERG because I’d confused it with Michael Frayn’s COPENHAGEN, which concerns Heisenberg and Bohr. I’d seen COPENHAGEN years ago at the Forrest here in Philadelphia, and I wondered how Manhattan Theatre Company would handle the production. But I soon learned (dummy!) that this is a new play by Simon Stephens, the playwright who adapted THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME for the stage. So then I was even more eager to see it. I’d seen THE CURIOUS INCIDENT last fall in London’s Gielgud Theatre. A sensitive story that counter-intuitively, but so rightly, transpires on a grid. An expansive production, it was a marvel of complex design with multiple lighting sources and video projections working together in time and space to support a wonderful story.

Denis Arndt & Mary-Louise Parker in HEISENBERG.

Denis Arndt & Mary-Louise Parker in HEISENBERG.

What a surprise to find that Stephens’ play, HEISENBERG is written for a small, spare production. No projections, no jazzy lighting, just stripped down scenic design that essentially consists of a couple tables and chairs. It’s intense and sometimes funny too. Two strangers gradually become involved. Mary Louise Parker’s character, over the top, exuberant, and unreliable, is played against Denis Arndt’s interiority as a restrained, laconic, and consciously almost submerged character. It’s like a psychological study and maybe a love story about two people who don’t disclose truths easily and could use a little love. Strangely, in a play that wants to expand Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics uncertainty principle to people and relationships, Heisenberg is never once mentioned. Soon after seeing the play I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Denis Arndt, who impressed me with his long-time, steady commitment to finding human truths through theater.

VIETGONE, the second play I saw in NYC over the weekend, interested me because it won the 2016 Steinberg/ATCA New Play award. I serve on that award committee, and was eager to see how Qui Nguyen’s script, a love story about displaced people with a message or two thrown in, transferred to the stage. Turns out it’s lots of fun. I’ve never seen a show quite like this. It absolutely comes alive with its creative use of culturally turned-around language, kind of cute profanity, solid acting, and a mix of original and old music (sung so that the lyrics are actually clear!). The inspired design elements: angular scenic design, extravagant and effective lighting and projection, and ironic American-culture costumes, are all beautifully and funkily coordinated. It was good to see Qui Nguyen’s play get the exposure it deserves in a fine production.

That’s the NYC weekend report. Signing off.

HEISENBERG: [Manhattan Theatre Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street] September 20-December 11, 2016; manhattantheatreclub.com.

VIETGONE: [MTC Stage at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street] October 4-November 27, 2016; manhattantheatreclub.com.

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.