“Copenhagen,” Michael Frayn’s Tony-winning play now embarking on its national tour at the Wilshire in Los Angeles, is a meaty work indeed, taking on such substantial stuff as nuclear physics, the history of WWII, the complex friendship of competitive geniuses and, most significantly, humanity’s ability, or inability, to comprehend itself. It’s a playwriting tour de force, rich in layered ambiguities, and made even richer by director Michael Blakemore’s imaginative, evocative staging. “Copenhagen” provides deeply rewarding viewing, and encouragement to anyone who believes drama can still be an essential form.
The play is set in an undefined afterlife. Its three characters — physicists Werner Heisenberg (Hank Stratton) and Niels Bohr (Len Cariou), joined by Bohr’s wife Margarethe (Mariette Hartley) — have all passed away, and are therefore now free to contemplate the motivations behind a meeting that has long puzzled historians. In 1941, as Germany was sweeping Europe and seemed on the verge of total victory, the German Heisenberg visited the Danish Bohrs at their home in occupied Copenhagen.
It was a meeting among old friends. In the ’20s, Heisenberg had begun his career with Bohr, who was a mentor and father figure to him. Together, they had collaborated on the work that immortalized them as scientists, making important contributions to theoretical physics. After 1941, the men, once so close, barely spoke again. Heisenberg would lead the German scientific team as it attempted, without success, to develop a nuclear reactor and, arguably, a bomb. Bohr would escape to America two years later and assist in the successful development of the bombs that eventually destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Frayn imagines what happened on that day, culling together various accounts, some of them contradictory. But determining what happened is one thing, and not the most important. Frayn’s real curiosities lie deeper — in why it happened, in the paradoxical possibilities of Heisenberg’s motivations in coming to visit.
The play is rife with scientific discussion, particularly with explanations of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which posited that one can’t actually pinpoint an ever-moving electron; while it’s possible to know its location or its velocity, it’s impossible to know both simultaneously. Frayn smartly uses Margarethe’s presence as an excuse for the men to put their theories into “plain language,” but what really matters is the central conceit. Frayn applies the science of paradox to the behavior of human beings.
Was Heisenberg looking to Bohr for approval, absolution, insight? Did Heisenberg want to build a nuclear bomb for Hitler, or was he purposefully, or maybe unconsciously, failing in his efforts to do so? Could both possibilities be true at once? And, taking this even further, is it possible to look back and fully understand a complex human being? Is it even possible for that human being to understand himself?
Blakemore takes the collision of science and human behavior and gives it an onstage physical manifestation. In Peter Davison’s set design, the actors are accompanied by nothing but three chairs, although they are surrounded by the audience — there’s a semicircular gallery behind them seating about 40.
The circular playing space is defined further by Mark Henderson and Michael Lincoln’s lighting, and the actors move about the stage in choreographed patterns, all of which evoke the neutrons and electrons being discussed.
For nearly two and a half hours, these ghosts, if you will, hash out what happened. It requires some sharp acting: the murkiness of history must be examined with great clarity. The repetitions of the main event — that meeting in 1941 — must gather steam as the figures approach some kind of consensus.
Cariou, Stratton, and Hartley are mostly up to the task. They’ve got the quickness of the dialogue down, recognizing that no matter how dense and detailed the speeches, this play provides no room for lingering. It’s not yet a finely sharpened machine of a production — a few lines get dropped, some of the movement feels self-conscious, there are ironies left uncovered — but all that will certainly improve as this national tour gets moving.
From Cariou, we get Bohr’s combination of competitiveness and kindness, and Hartley, excellent throughout, enlivens the second act when Margarethe finally gets to give her notably unscientific, but just as revealing, interpretation of events. The hardest role here is Heisenberg — he’s really the nucleus of this play, the one who’s under the glare of Frayn’s microscope. Stratton’s a fine actor, and delivers Heisenberg’s attempts at self-explication with increasing desperation. At this point in the run, though, we don’t quite get from Stratton a figure as complex as the play suggests — brilliant and arrogant and difficult and ambiguous and defensive and political all at once.
No matter: “Copenhagen” still comes across with its fascination intact.