Theater
10:58 am
Sun May 12, 2002

Copenhagen

"Copenhagen" is an unlikely stage hit: it revolves around what two physicists remember about developing the atomic bomb.

Boston, MA –

Winner of the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play, "Copenhagen" is based on a real-life meeting during World War II that continues to perplex historians. In 1941, Nazi physicist Werner Heisenberg went to Copenhagen to visit his old friend and mentor Neils Bohr and his wife. Why did Heisenberg go to a Nazi-occupied country to visit Bohr, who sided with the Allies? The conversation was short, but no one is really clear about what was said. Did Heisenberg go to warn Bohr the Germans were working on an atomic bomb? To invite Bohr to join the Nazis effort? Did Heisenberg intimate that if Allied scientists dragged their feet on the bomb, the Germans would as well? All these versions and others were offered up as possibilities over the years. Behind the ambiguity about who said what is the possibility of apocalypse. Is Heisenberg a hero or a monster? Could he have made an atomic bomb for Hitler or not?

"Copenhagen" often compares its characters to the parts of the atom. Neils Bohr is the proton, the stable father of nuclear physics. Heisenberg is his intellectual son, a flashy electron who is difficult to pin down. Bohr's wife is another electron, protectively circling Bohr, distrustful of Heisenberg's self-serving intentions. She is aware of the psychological motivations behind the mathematical formulas. The play itself is also like an electron - sometimes its spins into electric drama, especially whenever it touches on a darkly comic vision of how misunderstandings and chance circumstances, rather than firm action or principles, denied Hitler nuclear capability.

More often than not though, "Copenhagen" is slowed down by excessive exposition and explanation. Fearing that audiences don't know much WWII history or physics, British playwright Michael Frayn loads the play up with lengthy flashbacks and earnest lectures. Frayn also has the bad habit of stating what should be left implied. For example, we don't need to be told Heisenberg is the symbolic substitute for Bohr's dead son. This is a play about uncertainty that insists on spelling everything out.

There are other problems as well. Frayn is so anxious to score debating points that he undercuts the moral dimension of the drama. Heisenberg should make a strong case for his actions, but, as written, the character is too sympathetic. This Heisenberg is a conflicted and haunted man, anxious for absolution. Aside from dealing with the sniping of Bohr's wife, this Nazi collaborator gets off far too easy.

Yet, from time to time, the play blazes into life. And the subject matter, unlike the domestic conflicts that drive so many contemporary dramas, is fascinating. But the touring cast: Len Cariou, Mariette Hartley, Hank Stratton, isn't sharp enough; the actors tend to either lapse into inertia or shout. Perhaps with a better cast, the evening would exude more intellectual and emotional pizzazz. As it is, "Copenhagen" ignites a disappointingly flat explosion.

"Copenhagen" runs though May 19, 2002 at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, MA. For tickets, call (401) 331-2211.