The Uncertainty Principle
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 10, 2006
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle says that you can't know the exact location of a particle and its speed at the same time; if you know how fast something is accelerating then you can't know exactly where it is, and if you know where something is, then you can't know exactly how fast it's moving. Lots of modern science and philosophy proceeds from this powerful idea. Bethany Larsen, in her new play The Uncertainty Principle, uses Heisenberg's notion as an entry point into the psyche of a troubled young woman in transition.
When we first meet Cassie, she's dressed as a circus acrobat, trying to balance on a high wire while a demanding Ringmaster spurs her on against her will. It turns out that she's dreaming; the Ringmaster wakes her up just in time to escape a fire in her apartment building that consumes all of her possessions and, so it seems, all of her aspirations and grounding along with them. The remainder of the play charts Cassie's journey back to herself, with Heisenberg's observation informing her struggle with the chaotic randomness of life, and helping her toward an understanding of it.
Larsen doesn't hit her audience over the head with physics in this play; the eponymous theory is just underpinning for a story that follows Cassie to a sojourn with her best friend Jason (who is gay); a visit back home to her retro, unloving mother; and a strange and wacky romance with a guy named Robert Marks whom she meets by accident while trying to reconnect with an old high school flame. The play is, by turns, funny and dramatic, and Cassie learns from the various incidents charted within it how to be more together and at peace with herself.
One of the difficulties I had with The Uncertainty Principle is that we don't really know why Cassie is so unsettled and unhappy—Larsen pretty much withholds this information, so that we have to take it at face value that Cassie needs to embark on this fantastical voyage without ever understanding specifically what has happened in her life so far to bring her to this point. (I should note here that the fire, though certainly untethering, is not the problem: it is clear that Cassie was like this before the fire; it's just not clear why.) Another weakness in the script is that everybody that Cassie encounters, with the notable exception of Robert Marks, is kind of monstrously self-involved. Why do Cassie's mother and best friend Jason have to be so mean to her? It feels like the playwright stacking the deck against her protagonist rather than something more organic than that.
The device of having Cassie prodded along through her journey by a Ringmaster also feels a bit forced: why is Cassie dreaming specifically about the circus?
Julie Fei-Fan Balzer's production is uneven, with Nick Moore's sound and music design marvelously evocative but David Withrow's costumes curiously off-kilter and unattractive. Tim Downey is easy and likable as Robert Marks and Chris Kloko and Judy Chesnutt play Jason and the Mother pretty much as written (which is to say as fairly unpleasant creatures). But both Lauren Gleason as Cassie and Casey McClellan as the Ringmaster feel miscast here: McClellan exudes menace but not much else as a character who needs to be both taskmaster and fairy godfather to his charge, while Gleason comes across as both older and less vulnerable than Cassie seems intended to be.
There are some interesting ideas at play here, but on the whole The Uncertainty Principle is less than satisfying.