An intelligent theory on uncertain events

Review: `Copenhagen,' packed tight with knowledge, postulates what might have happened when two scientists met in 1941.

March 01, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Most of Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen focuses on a specific night in September 1941. It was the night German physicist Werner Heisenberg paid a visit to his mentor, Niels Bohr, at Bohr's home in Copenhagen. No one knows exactly what took place.

Frayn's play offers numerous theories. But far from mere historical analysis, this 2000 Tony Award winner now has gained increased urgency.

Part of this comes from viewing the play after Sept. 11. Plunged into wartime (and greeted at Washington's Kennedy Center by bomb-sniffing dogs), theatergoers cannot help but feel added dread upon hearing characters talk about war and devices of mass destruction.

In addition, the touring production arrived in Washington on the heels of the release of documents from the Bohr archive - including an unsent letter written to Heisenberg years later, commenting on that mysterious 1941 visit.

Despite this timeliness, Frayn's complex, three-person play still seems closer to a lecture than gripping drama. Granted, it's a spirited lecture, at times even a heated debate. And it's stunningly staged by director Michael Blakemore and acted with intelligence and intensity by Len Cariou as Bohr, Hank Stratton as Heisenberg and Mariette Hartley as Bohr's wife, Margrethe.

Indeed, Copenhagen is a play that frequently has you on the edge of your seat - but you might be perched there simply because you're trying to keep up, not because you're engrossed.

That said, I enjoyed the touring production more than its Broadway predecessor. The difference wasn't a matter of casting; both productions boasted excellent casts, although Stratton deserves extra kudos for his depiction of Heisenberg.

The difference was largely a matter of doing even more homework the second time around. Just as Elizabethan English may sound strange to the first-time Shakespeare-goer, so talk of uncertainty, complementarity, wave theory and Schrodinger's cat is apt to be off-putting to the uninitiated. (At the very least, I recommend reading the handout that includes Frayn's excerpted postscript to the published script.)

Not that everything you need to know isn't explained in the play. In fact, the character of Margrethe (a non-physicist) exists largely so that the two physicists will have to explain everything to her. The action begins long after the characters are dead, with Margrethe - or more precisely, her ghost - asking, "Why did [Heisenberg] come to Copenhagen?" The characters spend the rest of the play attempting to answer that question in a series of re-enactments.

Perhaps Heisenberg (who headed the German bomb program) was trying to discover how far along the Allies were. Perhaps he was trying to warn Bohr that the Germans were working on the bomb. Perhaps he was trying to recruit Bohr to help him. Perhaps he wanted to convince Bohr that they could halt the creation of the atom bomb altogether. And on and on.

Director Blakemore and designer Peter J. Davison ingeniously present the bulk of the action in a circular playing area that suggests the structure of an atom. In one scene, Heisenberg demonstrates his famed uncertainty principle - "that you can never know everything about the whereabouts of a particle," as he puts it - by having Margrethe stand center stage, portraying the nucleus of an atom. Bohr plays an electron, prowling the periphery, and Heisenberg portrays a photon, colliding with the electron and deflecting it.

Clever as this may be, the play is most affecting not when it is talking science, but when it shows what the characters are feeling - when we see the surrogate father-son relationship that unites (and exasperates) Bohr and Heisenberg, or the deep core of love and respect underlying the Bohrs' marriage. All of the actors distinguish themselves in these moments, but Stratton excels in an eleventh-hour speech about how he saved his life by bribing an SS man.

Frayn himself has remarked on the "parallels between Heisenberg's science and his life." In many ways, Heisenberg was an example of his own uncertainty principle - every time you think you've figured him out, he turns out to be something else.

In attempting to take the measure of the man, Frayn ultimately comes up with a fairly favorable impression. However you may feel about that impression - which many scientists and historians dispute - you have to admire the masterly achievement of creating a play whose staging frequently demonstrates the theories it is about.

But unlike the other recent Tony Award-winner about math and science, David Auburn's Proof (currently at the Mechanic Theatre), Copenhagen appeals more to the intellect than the emotions. And in the end, that makes it easier to admire than embrace.

Copenhagen

Where: Kennedy Center, 2600 Virginia Ave. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays. Through March 24

Tickets: $20-$68

Call: 800-444-1324

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