Three positively radioactive American stage stars give a vibrant charge to the Broadway production of “Copenhagen,” Michael Frayn’s dense, vigorously smart play about a mysterious meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941. “Copenhagen” has been a critical and — rather more surprisingly — commercial hit in London, but its prospects on Broadway are by no means assured. The play is rich with dexterously deployed metaphors drawn from the world of physics, finding particular resonance in the uncertainty principle. To extend the metaphor, a similar indeterminacy may apply to “Copenhagen’s” commercial chances in New York, a market where far less intellectually challenging plays have a tough time finding audiences. What is pleasingly certain, however, is the manner in which Philip Bosco, Blair Brown and Michael Cumpsty, quietly circling the stage of the Royale Theater under the keen direction of Michael Blakemore, find all the moving human equations in a play that in lesser hands could have all the emotional texture of a reading of the periodic table of elements.
“Copenhagen” takes place in a sort of celestial chamber that’s been handsomely designed by Peter J. Davison, and lit with great dramatic variation by Mark Henderson and Michael Lincoln. The performers revolve around each other on a blond wood disc, and the set as a whole suggests an operating theater in which the play’s three characters, now all “dead and gone,” are observed by an onstage audience that seemingly sits in judgment. Indeed, we are all here to solve a mystery: “Why did he come to Copenhagen?” asks Brown’s Margrethe Bohr in the play’s opening moments, addressing her husband, elder Danish physicist Bohr (Bosco).
The “he” she speaks of is Heisenberg (Cumpsty), a younger German scientist who was formerly Bohr’s beloved protege. The visit in question took place when Denmark was under Nazi occupation. Heisenberg, who chose to stay in Nazi Germany while many of his (mostly Jewish) colleagues fled, spent a tense evening in the Copenhagen home of his old mentor, and the import of this meeting would be debated endlessly. Bohr and Heisenberg gave conflicting accounts of the visit in later years, and Frayn’s play imagines what might have happened had the two met for a final reckoning in some otherworldly sphere.
Audiences will have to sit up and pay attention at “Copenhagen” — indeed, it would not be ill-advised to take notes. Here’s a little sample of the play’s more scientifically abstruse dialogue, spoken by Bosco’s Bohr as the physicists discuss the process of fission, the reaction at the heart of atomic energy: “Natural uranium consists of two different isotopes, U-238 and U-235. Less than 1% of it is U-235, and this tiny fraction is the only part of it that’s fissionable by fast neutrons.”
U may find it a little hard to keep up.
And in truth, some of the elaborate expositional byways the play goes down don’t seem entirely necessary. Frayn, best known on Broadway for the mathematically precise farce “Noises Off,” is clearly excited by the minutiae of physics in ways that most audiences will not be. One wonders whether a more consistently potent play might not have been created by whittling away some of Frayn’s daunting collage of historical and scientific lore. Maybe, but maybe not: The scientific ideas are so ingeniously allied to the play’s thematic concerns that it would be hard to separate them, and for the most part, Frayn has elegantly woven his digressions on theoretical physics into the fabric of the drama.
In any case, the most remarkable thing about “Copenhagen,” and particularly this brilliant Broadway production of it, is how very dramatically taut and engaging it manages to be.
Part of its appeal can be traced to the larger questions that lie behind the seemingly arcane issue of what Bohr and Heisenberg discussed at this meeting. As the play relates, Heisenberg would return to Germany and steadily continue to work on nuclear fission, while Bohr would ultimately escape Denmark and prove an invaluable addition to the Los Alamos, N.M., team that would create the atomic bomb that ended World War II. In retrospect, Frayn suggests, the meeting between them may well have been a moral turning point in the history of science.
Was Heisenberg seeking Bohr’s permission to work on the practical military applications of their discoveries in physics? Was he trying to enlist Bohr in a plan mutually to undermine both the Allies’ and the Nazis’ plans for a bomb? Was the German team’s failure to crack the key physics equations an intentional move by Heisenberg or merely the result of inadequacy? Did Heisenberg mislead Albert Speer at a famous meeting that resulted in the abandonment of Germany’s A-bomb project?
“Copenhagen” engages all of these possibilities as Bohr and Heisenberg sift through both the moral and the practical ramifications of each one, with Margrethe providing the chemical agent that keeps the reactions between the men rebounding from remembered affection to sad suspicion and back again. Their interplay may sound hopelessly dry, but Frayn has humanized his characters by keeping the dialogue as light and natural as it can be, and by showing the personal propensities and histories of the two men that may have colored their perspectives.
It’s impossible to overstate the contributions made by the cast, although Blakemore’s sensitive and ever-alert direction is equally invaluable. The performers’ commitment to this challenging play fuels the audience’s. We are held fast because the conviction of the actors tells us that its fascinations are not just intellectual but philosophical and emotional, not just a question of history but of the here and now.
Continuing a terrific season on New York stages, Brown gives fine nuances to her role, subtly making clear Margrethe’s ambivalence toward Heisenberg that is contrasted with, and inspired by, her bottomless affection for her husband.
Bosco is simply wonderful as the avuncular Bohr, deeply and joyfully inquisitive, and yet haunted by the mysteries of the past and his own responsibility in the creation of the atomic bomb. This veteran stage actor gives beautiful flourishes to Frayn’s tricky dialogue through the use of his rich and resonant voice.
In the ambiguous role of Heisenberg, Cumpsty may be most impressive of all, persuasively staking a claim to Broadway stardom with a performance of terrific humanity and theatrical potency. His powerful baritone also has a wide array of colors in it, and he uses it to create from Frayn’s densely layered writing a character of vivid emotional presence. Circling the stage repeatedly as the play rewinds tirelessly to re-examine events from another perspective, Cumpsty movingly draws us into the heart of a man torn between love for his country and guilt over the demands that are cruelly put on that love. He also vividly renders Heisenberg’s fierce bitterness after half a lifetime of defending his war work, despite the fact that, as Bohr puts it, he “never managed to contribute to the death of one single solitary person.”
The conflicted heart of Heisenberg, the mysteries of his motivation, are at the center of the play. But the idea radiates outward from Heisenberg to encompass Bohr and Margrethe, too, and ultimately all of humanity. Frayn sees the mystery of their meeting as a symbolic corollary of the scientific breakthroughs Heisenberg and Bohr made, namely the uncertainty principle and complementarity. “We put man back at the center of the universe,” Bohr says, putting the idea — for once! — in a nutshell. Science is a construct of man, and therefore is colored by the complexities of the human mind and heart.
This extraordinarily ambitious play invites us to meditate at length upon these mysteries, and the infinite possibilities for good and evil that they allow. The play’s repetitive, circular construction is vital to its meaning. There is no definitive answer to the questions about the Bohr-Heisenberg meeting because human actions are at bottom inexplicable — there is “a final core of uncertainty at the heart of things.”
You may forget all the facts of physics that “Copenhagen” copiously spews forth, but you’ll remember the experience of it and thus its essential meaning. It’s about the infinite possibilities that abound in each moment in time, the myriad thoughts that stream through each mind in such a moment, the myriad impulses that war in each heart — and the way every moment thus contains the potential to change the course of human history.