‘Copenhagen’ Cleverly Examines Atomic ‘What If?’ (4 Stars)

COPENHAGEN – Written by Michael Frayn; Set/Light Design, Sound/Music, and Direction by Jon Taie; Costumes and Set/Graphics Design by Sharon Lacey; and Stage Management by Kelly Smith. Presented by Porpentine Players at the Nave Gallery, 155 Powderhouse Blvd, Somerville, MA at 7pm through January 31st.

Can you imagine what would have happened during WWII if the Germans had invented the atomic bomb before the Americans? Not only would Hiroshima and Nagasaki be spared, but the world would be a different place, indeed. These speculations are central to Michael Frayn’s historical drama, COPENHAGEN directed by Jon Taie. The play examines an actual event that took place in September of 1941 and imagines what might have happened when two men of science took a walk. They never spoke to each other again, their friendship of almost twenty years irrevocably broken.

A German physicist, Werner Heisenberg (R. Nelson Lacey) visits his teacher, colleague, and surrogate father, Niels Bohr (Floyd Richardson), a Danish scientist and a Jew, in Denmark during the German occupation – two men on opposite sides of the war. Bohr is considered the father of quantum physics and Heisenberg is known for his “uncertainty principle.” The third character, Bohr’s wife, Margrethe (Ann Carpenter), confidant to her husband, has typed all his research, and becomes translator to the audience regarding foundational quantum mechanics and atomic physics. Throughout the drama, the characters refer to the Bohrs’ missing son, Christian, who drowned in a tragic accident, and symbolizes both loss and the connection between Bohr and Heisenberg. The three, who are meeting again in the hereafter, are able to scan and skip through time periods, still arguing their points.

The open performance area, its ceiling lamps covered in tulle to diffuse light, easily transforms back into a meeting space by moving the double rows of theater seats positioned on three sides of the staging area. The living room set of the Bohr’s home, however, offers sparse seating, keeping the actors on their feet for almost the entire three hours. In addition, the kitchen/office area, obscured to many patrons, begs to be viewed during the intermission, as there is an ancient typewriter and the actual photographs of Werner, Niels, and their families, which are also seen by old-fashioned slide projector throughout the production.

The play uses several devices to help the audience follow the science and relationships. A chalkboard allows several points to be illustrated. The two men exhibit impressive stamina, as well as manic intensity and growing anger, while moving around each other mimicking photons and electrons. Scientific principals need to be reported in plain language, i.e., language that Margarethe can understand as she types – and, therefore, so can we. Also, the written “Spark Notes” in the program on Complementarity, Nuclear Fission, Cloud Chamber, and Double Slit Experiment are incredibly helpful.

The play requires feats of endurance and a full range of emotions from the seasoned actors. Lacey’s portrayal of Heisenberg exudes precocious, competitive, childish “I’m right” behavior as they argue whether light is a particle or a wave, and a manipulative quality as he prods for information on Bohr’s philosophy about potentially splitting Uranium to create a bomb. He is impulsive and not thinking of the consequences of developing a nuclear reactor for the Reich. Richardson emotionally takes on the role of Bohr, the teacher, enjoying the jousting, but still wanting to be right. When one of the funniest lines is, “No one is going to be developing a weapon based on nuclear fission”, and the lecture is about how theoretical physics is seen as inferior to experimental physics, therefore the only job a Jew could get, he captures the serious nature of both the conversation and time period. Ann Carpenter, in her blonde, pinned curls and sensible shoes, is blunt and fearless, confronting both men about truths of what really happened between them. She serves tea and brutal honesty with equal aplomb.

We will never know what happened when Heisenberg appeared at Bohr’s wiretapped home and they went for a walk. We do know that Bohr eventually helped the U.S. develop the bomb at Los Alamos, but we can only ponder about what Heisenberg accomplished. Did his ego and arrogance continue to push him to try to create a bomb for the Reich? Or, did his former teacher make an impression on him so that his “failure” was actually a thwarting of Germany’s plans? It is poignant that when the Nazis came for Denmark’s Jews, none could be found.

This is not a controversial play; it is a play about controversies. It pokes fun at the “uncertainty” of the meeting and its unknowable conversation, but that’s about all that is “fun” about the serious topic of nuclear fission. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of two Japanese cities putting “theoretical knowledge” into deadly practice. While not everyone’s cup of tea, I found the intellectual snobbery, verbal puns about physics, implications of human relationships, and desire for a lasting legacy riveting; but I’m a science geek, so I’ll have my tea with honey. for more info, go to: http://www.porpentineplayers.com/