Tell me if this sounds familiar: Two people locked in a pivotal contest of ideas and ideologies, steeped in international espionage, with the fate of millions hanging in the balance. If you guessed “European physicists discussing electrons in 1941”, you’re a better student of history than I.
Theater J’s twisty, slow-burn production of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen offers an imagined look inside the fabled 1941 meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr, famous researchers forever tied to the race to develop the first nuclear bomb. It’s a gripping tale of ego, ideology, and scientific discovery in a world balanced on the edge of a knife.
Historians can’t fully agree what happened when Heisenberg, then an atomic energy researcher at the Nazi weapons bureau, visited his former mentor Bohr at his home in occupied Denmark. The key facts are as follows: The two men spoke to each other in private, after which Bohr stormed out of the meeting visibly upset. At their first meeting years later, neither man could recall or admit what they had discussed. Playwright Frayn uses this ellipsis as his blank canvas, sketching out various versions of the meeting and its outcome. Was it ego, lust for knowledge, or moral absolution that drove Heisenberg’s visit? And what made Bohr leave the meeting so hastily?
Director Eleanor Holdridge and her cast of Michael Russotto, Sherri L. Edelen, and Tim Getman navigate the hazy streams of possibility with veteran poise. Bohr (Russotto) and his wife Margrethe (Edelen) open the play with a roundabout debate on Heisenberg’s motivations for the visit. The easy chemistry between Russotto and Edelen helps paint a convincing picture of a fiercely committed couple grappling with emotional scars from the strain of war.
Outside their home, a pensive Heisenberg wanders through a web of plastic sheeting that recalls a transparent Bavarian forest, recounting his memories of the trying realities of wartime. Bohr greets his hesitant former pupil at his door, and a delicate dance begins.
Across two and a half tense hours, Bohr and Heisenberg debate the practicality and morality of “splitting the atom”. They pause occasionally to reminisce about better times, when they weren’t so split along nationalistic and ideological lines. Then, every time they reach a seeming resolution, they reset and reenact their meeting with slight variations. It plays out like a high-stakes version of Bill Murray’s film “Groundhog Day”.
Russotto and Getman bring a crackling energy to every topic, from academic publishing to atomic structure to the fate of nations. Getman mesmerizes as a man torn between satisfying his own ambition and protecting his country – and appeasing his old mentor by hewing to a higher moral standard. Russotto holds his own, balancing Getman’s more manic energy with the wary, remorseful presence of an elder statesman who’s seen far too much of war. Meanwhile, Edelen does her best to liven up Margrethe’s heavy doses of exposition, which verge on the excessive. When not in monologue, she doggedly pushes the dueling physicists out of their academic bubble to confront the real, potentially deadly consequences of their theoretical work.
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closes January 29, 2017
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Scenic designer Luciana Stecconi appropriately couches the action in a set that combines midcentury Euro chic with the clean, white tones and the plastic curtains of a research lab. It’s a neat trick to make the stage homey and yet sterile at the same time. Composer and sound designer Patrick Calhoun channels a more foreboding Philip Glass with a soundtrack of classical strains infused with eerie and otherworldly quality. You can’t help but feel you’re sitting in the well-appointed control center of a giant centrifuge, watching researchers squabble over scientific breakthroughs that will determine the fate of the planet far above.
Copenhagen is as vital now as it was when it premiered in London in 1998. In a shrinking world of rapid technological and social change, Frayn’s incisive work forces us to confront the disastrous results of zero-sum foreign policy and scientific progress simply for progress’ sake. As Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Copenhagen . By Michael Frayn . Directed by Eleanor Holdridge . Produced by Theater J . Featuring Sherri L. Edelen, Tim Getman, and Michael Russotto . Scenic Design by Luciana Stecconi . Costume Design by Kelsey Hunt . Lighting Design by Andrew Cissna . Composition/Sound Design by Patrick Calhoun . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Ben Demers