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THEATER

A Playwright's Quantum Leap

How did Michael Frayn get from 'Noises Off' to 'Copenhagen,' a Tony winner about physics and friendship? He's a big believer in imagination.

November 25, 2001|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg, whose most recent book is "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work," is a regular contributor to Calendar

When Michael Frayn's play "Copenhagen" was previewing on Broadway last year, the author received a harsh letter from a theatergoer. "You may know a little bit about writing plays, Mr. Frayn, but I know something about Broadway," read the letter. "I've been watching plays on Broadway for 30 years now, and I can tell you that if you don't take all of the science out of your play, you aren't going to last on Broadway."

Fortunately, Frayn ignored her. His play about the wartime meeting of Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg opened with all its science intact and earned critical raves, then went on to strong box office and the 2000 Tony Award for best play. The drama had also played for three years in London, first at the Royal National Theatre, then on the West End.

Frayn's look at Bohr, Heisenberg and the bomb opens today at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills, starring Len Cariou, Hank Stratton and Mariette Hartley. "Copenhagen," which plays through Jan. 6, imagines what may have happened when Heisenberg, head of Nazi Germany's nuclear research, traveled to occupied Denmark in 1941 to visit Bohr, his former mentor and a half-Jew, to talk--or not talk--about quantum physics, nuclear fission, war and friendship.

Reached by phone at his office in London, Frayn concedes he was worried about attracting an audience. "I didn't think for a moment anyone would ever produce it," says the 68-year-old playwright and novelist. "It seemed to me far too abstract a subject. I was very surprised when the National Theatre said they would do it, and I certainly didn't think anyone would come to see it."

Not only did people come to see what one English critic called a blend of historical detective story, morality lecture and lesson in advanced nuclear physics, but the popularity of the play affected its subject matter. "Copenhagen" spurred assorted articles and conferences about the period, creating so much attention that Bohr's family recently announced it would soon release long-undisclosed materials that may illuminate the 1941 meeting.

At issue are two mysteries. The first mystery is why Heisenberg went to Copenhagen, a question Frayn asks in the first five minutes of the play. He then spends the rest of the play answering with multiple choices: to learn what the Allies were doing in nuclear fission; to reassure Bohr that Germany wasn't working on a bomb; to recruit his former mentor; to get absolution and/or advice; all of the above; or none of the above. And the second question is why didn't Heisenberg provide Hitler with a bomb: because he failed scientifically or because he wanted to save the world from Nazi bombing?

Much had been written about Heisenberg and Bohr's meeting, Frayn says, but the playwright didn't learn of it until he read Thomas Powers' 1993 book, "Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb." Once he learned of it, he says, "it suggested a way of coming at various problems I had been thinking about for many years in human motivation. Why people do what they do. Why one does what one does oneself."

Similar questions are also raised in Frayn's most famous play, "Noises Off," a farce that has just been revived on Broadway starring Patti LuPone and Peter Gallagher. "You couldn't have two more different plays than 'Noises Off' and 'Copenhagen,"' says Michael Blakemore, director of "Copenhagen," the original production of "Noises Off" and four other Frayn plays. "But the intellectual grasp and attention to detail are common to both plays."

"Copenhagen's" Los Angeles opening launches a national tour, and Blakemore met with his actors earlier this month for rehearsals in New York. The Broadway opening of "Noises Off" brought Frayn to New York as well, giving Cariou, Stratton and Hartley an opportunity to talk with him about physics, physicists and fiction.

"We asked him to clarify some of the history," says Stratton, who plays "whiz kid" Heisenberg. "We wanted to know what was subjective and what was historical fact. Not only is he clear on the historical detail, but he knows the science as well. That's why, in the play, the science is so easy to follow. Michael Frayn himself is so clear."

Audiences who see the play may not have the background its actors have, adds Cariou, who plays Bohr, "but it is not really as obtuse as it might seem. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to follow the play. You just have to listen."

Not that rocket scientists haven't also enjoyed listening to Frayn's speculations. When London's National Theatre toured the play to Oxford, a conference of particle physicists was in town and, recalls Frayn, "I agreed to go and talk to them after the show. I felt very alarmed, being thrown in like Daniel in the lion's den. But they were very generous and sympathetic."

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