Fission Trip

This is a glowing review for a play about plutonium. For three hours in Michael Frayn's fact-based Copenhagen, nearly perfect in the impressive production at Theatre Three, two brilliant World War II-era scientists discuss the splitting of the atom and the scary prospects of nuclear Armageddon. They talk quantum ethics, matrix calculus and fission the way other men toss around baseball stats. And it's fascinating.

Frayn's witty, philosophical script--part fact, part writerly speculation--won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play. He based it on the real-life relationship between the loyal German scientist Werner Heisenberg (played by Craig Bridger) and his mentor, Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Jac Alder). The two had revolutionized the scientific world by splitting the atom but split as friends and colleagues after a brief, covert meeting in Copenhagen in 1941. It is the why behind the angry blow-up that forms the nucleus of the play.

In Act 1, Heisenberg turns up unexpectedly at the Copenhagen home of Bohr, who is half Jewish and fearful of imminent deportation to a death camp. Bohr and his wife, Margrethe (Beverly May), have good reason to suspect that the visitor has a dangerous purpose. The great Jewish scientists have fled Germany for England and the United States. Heisenberg, however, has stayed behind to continue his research for Hitler's atomic weapons project. But to build a workable nuclear reactor, he needs Bohr's help with the final calculations.

Or does he? The young scientist could put Germany ahead of the Allies in the arms race, a prospect too horrifying to consider. But Bohr wants to believe that Heisenberg might deliberately be bungling the computations of critical mass to handicap the Third Reich's development of the atomic bomb. (Bohr later would join the American scientific team at Los Alamos, where he helped build the bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

For all of its talk of isotopes and uranium 235, Copenhagen unfolds like a gripping psychological mystery. It is rich with geometric repetitions and overlapping plot lines. Bit by bit, layers of secrets and lies peel away and Heisenberg's real motives become clear.

Frayn paces the dialogue as delicately as a fugue. The cast at Theatre Three expertly hits every note. This material is challenging to absorb and must be incredibly difficult to perform. But this company rises to the task. Major elements--directing, acting, design--have been handled with great care. Certainly Copenhagen is Theatre Three's finest production this season.

The acting is superb. Director Rene Moreno has stripped Jac Alder of his quirky mannerisms, and here Alder achieves a quiet, mature, finely tuned performance. Lovely Beverly May, a veteran actress who's worked in Dallas for many years, makes a warm, smart Margrethe. Her solid presence balances the triangle formed by the play's trio of strong characters. When the tensions between Bohr and Heisenberg threaten to reach meltdown status, Margrethe is there calmly offering "Tea, anyone?" Her character humanizes the high-flown arguments, and Frayn cleverly allows her to serve as translator for those among us who haven't cracked a science book since high school.

Craig Bridger's Heisenberg is the toughest role to carry off. We're not supposed to know if this character should be admired or feared, and Bridger maintains just the right balance of hero and villain in his persona.

For the set, designer Jasper Ashley Pounds has kept the acting space blessedly light and spare. Three plain, pale wooden chairs sit atop a black floor painted with intersecting circles and triangles. An archway upstage seems to serve as a portal to the infinity of deep space. Costumes by Patty Korbelic Williams continue the design concept's simple geometry with boxy suits that flatter the actors without making distracting fashion statements.

The idea of geometry is central to the play as the three characters return again and again to that crucial 1941 meeting. They rewind what happened or might have happened and, each time, the Bohrs learn a little more about their friend and what he might have been up to in Germany. But Heisenberg, the scientist who defined the "uncertainty principle"--that the more you observe any object in motion, the less you can know about it--can't even be certain of his own intentions when it comes to the repercussions of advancements in atomic weaponry.

The big question in the play is, whose side is Heisenberg really on?

The resolution, when it finally comes, is extraordinarily moving and provocative. But the reconstruction of the bond among the three characters doesn't happen for their benefit. It's for us (and the playwright). Heisenberg and the Bohrs are all, in fact, in the hereafter when we meet them.

"Now we're all dead and gone. Now no one can be hurt. Now no one can be betrayed," they say by way of introduction.

And since they're all dead, no one who was really there can contradict Frayn's speculative version of things. Even the playwright admits that the play's Heisenberg is more fiction than fact, something confirmed to Frayn by Heisenberg's son Jochen when they met at Copenhagen's Broadway opening.

Controversy has surrounded this play since its debut. Several scientific symposia here and abroad have studied every split atom and split infinitive in Copenhagen. Historians have taken Frayn to task for seeming to blame Jewish scientists for the existence of the A-bomb (something he says is untrue). Bohr's relatives released unpublished letters from him to refute Frayn's fictionalized reconciliation between the two scientists.

Funny to think that Frayn is best known as the author of the nonsensical farce Noises Off. When he finished Copenhagen, he wrote later, he had doubted anyone would ever want to produce a drama steeped in science in the first place. Shocked at the barrage of criticism, he defended the play last spring in a long screed for The New York Review of Books.

None of this really matters. What matters is what happens onstage when the lights go down. Copenhagen takes the known complexities of science and lets them serve as metaphor for the flawed uncertainties of human thought. Theatre Three takes three talented actors and lets them serve a great play nearly flawlessly. At its core, that's what great theater is all about.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner