In the fall of 1941, a German physicist traveled to Nazi-occupied Denmark to consult with his old Jewish teacher and mentor. The details of that meeting are fuzzy at best — all the documents describing it are unsent letters and notes written at least sixteen years after the fact — yet it might well have changed the course of human history. The young German was Werner Heisenberg, he of quantum physics’ famous “Uncertainty Principle,” and the older Dane was Niels Bohr, a giant of atomic physics. What did they talk about? German research into atomic energy and the possibility it could be used to make weapons? The likelihood that the Americans were building a bomb of their own? Nobody quite knows, even after going over the scientist’s letters, and that’s what encouraged British playwright Michael Frayn to write Copenhagen, a memory play that begins long after both men and Bohr’s wife and secretary, Margarethe, are dead. The three characters hash and rehash why, exactly, Heisenberg came calling, and in the process both drop some science (literally) and examine the limits of guilt and complicity.
Novelist, translator, screenwriter: Frayn is unstoppable, and he thinks big. His latest book is The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe. No easy answers for him, at least not in his serious works. One of his plays gets done by small and community theaters all the time, but this isn’t the show they attempt; that honor goes to Noises Off, a reliable farce about the backstage shenanigans of a theater company full of lovable kooks.
Director Kevin Morales of Lafayette’s Town Hall is trying something harder. Copenhagen is serious, talky, and static, just like Frayn’s Benefactors, which Aurora audiences might remember from 2002. And while you don’t really need to know the historical context in which it’s set, the first few scenes can be a real struggle, trying to keep track of all the names and dates the characters toss around. Who were Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Enrico Fermi? Are we watching the men talking in 1941, or 1924? It’s worth arriving a little early to read the posters in the theater’s cafe, especially if you want to try an “Atomic Sunrise” from the bar; they lay out the stories of the various scientists who birthed the bomb.
At least the science is laid bare early and often in the play itself. Bohr was known for his dedication to breaking things down so they could be easily understood, and here Frayn often has him saying things like “We have to be able to explain it to Margarethe.”
While things never break into the merriment of Noises Off or the frenzy of Alarms and Excursions, they do start to get interesting once the men have gotten over the stiffness of their initial reunion, and then especially in the second act. Their humanity becomes more apparent, as well as their tempers — as Margarethe (a vibrant Mary Gibboney), comforting and chastising by turns, pushes both men to face their own motivations, things heat up like a nuclear fuel rod taken out of its water bath. Heisenberg reveals the damaged soul of one who grew up in the ruins of WWI Germany, the Bohrs struggle with the loss of a child, and we learn that the theoretical physics you need to make reactors and bombs took a long time to gain a toehold in Germany because most of the first researchers were Jewish, which is pretty ironic.
This is Gibboney’s second WWII play in recent memory; she played Fraulein Schneider in Shotgun’s recent Cabaret. Another veteran of that production, Clive Worsley, plays the fatherly Bohr. This must be one of the straightest roles I’ve ever seen him play, even if for some reason he spends most of the play with his back curved into an odd parenthesis, his chest thrust out. Perhaps he’s contrasting the ramrod-straight Sean Robert Griffin as the youthful Heisenberg, who at first is almost as quietly creepy here as he was as the servant Riff-Raff in Town Hall’s Rocky Horror Show. But the three are rock-solid in their roles, no easy task when you consider how infrequently an actor is called upon to recall a 24-digit number to illustrate a point about nuclear fission.
Klyph Stanford’s set is deceptively simple: two round platforms that might represent atoms, a wipe-board, a grid of small hanging canvases, an IKEA sort of table with a few glasses of water, everything liminally scientific. We are not seeing what really happened, but a dream of what might have. And, like dreams, people’s ideas about themselves and others shift: Was Heisenberg trying to sabotage his own program so that his beloved Germany couldn’t build a bomb, or would his curiosity about whether it was possible win out? Bohr seems noble until we find out where he escaped to, the night the Nazis came across in their ships only to find that the people of Denmark had spirited away all of that country’s Jews — is there blood on his hands or not?
In the storytelling, Frayn recapitulates the men’s scientific theories, especially Heisenberg’s famous theory. We can know the man’s position, or his momentum, but never both at the same time. Copenhagen is a dense mystery that will resonate with viewers curious about science, history, and how we justify our actions.