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A Forceful Collision of Science, Conscience

Theater Review

November 27, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

In the world according to 2001, the question of who has access to nuclear weapons, and why they may want to let everyone else know it, hangs like a canopy over a large, highly flammable map.

It's an excellent time to ask ourselves: How did we arrive at such a question?

Another one: Did a mysterious 1941 meeting in Copenhagen between two Nobel Prize-winning physicists affect the outcome, nuclear and otherwise, of the 20th century?

Now at the Wilshire Theatre, Michael Frayn's eloquent, carefully wrought "Copenhagen" is about that meeting between Niels Bohr, a methodical Dane, and his brash colleague and friend Werner Heisenberg, the German behind the "uncertainty principle" of particle physics.

Rather than flatfooting his way down the path of docudrama, laying out a single version of events, Frayn revels in multiple possibilities, various what-ifs and scenarios, as Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr's wife, Margrethe, now "dead and gone," look back on their lives with particular emphasis on one especially tense night during wartime.

It's a ghost story, a science seminar and, movingly (though not melodramatically), an investigation of conscience. The national tour of "Copenhagen," which opened Sunday at the Wilshire, is a good, strong version of Frayn's multifaceted accomplishment.

Before the play begins we're confronted with a handsome, light-blond-wood-paneled set resembling an operating theater. Two rows of audience members are seated gallery-style onstage. (The drama "Equus" did likewise.) Bohr (Len Cariou) and his wife (Mariette Hartley) enter from the rear of the raked stage, getting right to the point. Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen? Bohr asks. Death has brought little hindsight to these spirits.

Heisenberg risked a lot to reunite with Bohr in Bohr's occupied homeland. A physicist in the employ of the Nazis, under surveillance, Heisenberg needed to talk to his mentor about something. He may have been trying to pry information out of Bohr regarding the Allies' nuclear fission program. He may have been trying to recruit Bohr for the Third Reich's own efforts. He may have been seeking absolution.

Like Bohr, Frayn finds fuel in the paradox. Bohr, a "profoundly good man," ended up assisting J. Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos as a father-confessor figure and, in a small way, contributed to the development of the bombs eventually dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. By contrast Heisenberg's shadowy efforts contributed to no one's death.

In summary, "Copenhagen" sounds rather dry, and there are patches when the historical detail and theoretical physics leave you, as the Thomas Dolby song says, momentarily blinded with science. (Frayn's research occasionally gets in the way of his theatrical instincts; the same thing happened with another front-rank dramatist, Tom Stoppard, when Stoppard got his mitts on all that classical Latin poetry in "The Invention of Love.") Also, when Heisenberg and Bohr burrow into the past, retrieving memories of their first, eager collaborations in the 1920s, the theatrical tension slackens a bit.

So you have to listen; big deal. The play pays off handsomely. Take it from this former C-minus science student.

Director Michael Blakemore hasn't merely restaged his Broadway production for the road; he has done so with the actual Broadway set designed by Peter J. Davison. Cariou's Bohr is a stocky, authoritative figure, whose hail-fellow smile turns to sarcastic anger on a dime. It's a solid performance, if not yet entirely secure in its rhythms. Hartley's Margrethe is first-rate, largely silent in Act 1--her smile is that of the polite science widow, interested in the discussion at hand, up to a point. There's steel behind the smile, though.

Hank Stratton, as Heisenberg, has the toughest role, and at this early point in the tour, he has the furthest to go. There's a phony quality to Stratton's most openly dramatic moments; he more or less Stephen Boyds his way through a lot of it, and when his Heisenberg goes for lower-register sincerity, it comes out sounding false. On the other hand, when he relaxes into the role's more contemplative, reflective passages, Stratton's fine. The character should be ambiguous; he shouldn't be transparently untrustworthy.

There's a dazzlingly effective moment in "Copenhagen" when Heisenberg, at Bohr's urging, realizes he missed a crucial calculation involving Uranium-235. Suddenly an explosion floods the stage with white light and a terrifying rumble. It is the bomb that the Nazis never had. Director Blakemore lets the audience have it (the moment's unscripted), and because the direction's so subtly particularized throughout, this wallop is just right. The production builds to this moment step by step, question by question.

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