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Vol. LXIV, No. 13
 
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
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Music/Theater

POLITICS, PASSIONS AND PHYSICS — Legendary Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Josh Zeitlin, left), his wife (Jenn Onofrio) and Bohr’s German counterpart and former student Werner Heisenberg (Brad Wilson) meet in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen, September 1941, to discuss the atomic bomb and the future of the world in Michael Frayn’s speculative historical drama Copenhagen, at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus through April 3.

Dramatic Speculations: What If Hitler Had Gotten the Atom Bomb? Two Great Physicists Shape the Course of History in “Copenhagen”

Donald Gilpin

In September 1941 Werner Heisenberg, renowned physicist and the leader of Germany’s project to develop an atomic bomb, traveled to Nazi-occupied Copenhagen and met with his former teacher, friend and colleague, the legendary Niels Bohr. Heisenberg went to dinner at the Bohrs’ house, and the two men, apparently to escape from hidden microphones, went for a short walk after dinner. Two years later Bohr, who was Jewish, fled Denmark and made his way to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the bomb by 1945. The Nazi atomic bomb program was halted by the Allied advance into Germany that same year.

What Bohr and Heisenberg said and what actually happened between them has been the subject of much speculation among scientists and historians. It is also the subject of Michael Frayn’s 2000 Tony Award-winning drama, Copenhagen, playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus through April 3.

A more suitable subject perhaps for a scholarly article, or a philosophical or historical novel, Copenhagen showcases Mr. Frayn, the erudite and ingenious creator of one of the funniest comedies of the twentieth century, Noises Off (1982), and a slew of other highly acclaimed comedies, dramas, novels and translations of the plays of Anton Chekhov, at his most dazzlingly intellectual and inventive.

As a play, with just three actors, an all-white, abstract, multi-level unit set, no props and just the two long-winded physicists, Bohr and Heisenberg, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe ruminating, remembering, talking for almost two and a half hours — Copenhagen makes unusual demands on its actors and its audiences. I’m sure I should have paid closer attention in my eleventh grade physics class, for there were obviously many in last Saturday night’s audience who took far greater delight than I in lengthy discussions of neutrons, electrons and atoms, particle physics and atomic fission, theories of quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle and complementarity. At times, I confess, I even found myself longing for a few of those slamming doors and flying plates of sardines that lit up the action and humor of Noises Off.

Theatre Intime’s production of Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” will play for just one more weekend, April 1-3, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and an additional 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, April 3, in the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets for tickets. For further information visit www.theatreintime.org.

Copenhagen is a brilliant play — in its fascinating approach to the mysterious circumstances of Heisenberg’s visit to Bohr; in its artful structure, with the three characters coming together as long-dead ghosts to reflect on their pasts and trying to figure out what they did and why they did it; in the clever ways the characters’ behaviors reflect their theories of the atom itself; in its creation of these dynamic, passionate individuals and their relationships. And the Intime cast under the intelligent direction of Princeton University sophomore Cara Tucker has rehearsed assiduously and performed remarkable feats of memorization, timing and character work here. It’s a long, technically challenging script, and the contrapuntal nature of the dialogue, with characters shifting rapidly back and forth between narration and dialogue, creates significant challenges in focus and timing.

This impressive play and admirable Intime production demand extraordinarily close attention from audiences, offering rich intellectual fare and intriguing human interaction — though some audience members may feel more esteem than enjoyment.

As the audience walks into the theater, the three actors are already on stage, in character — pacing, pondering. As the lights dim and the play begins, the unusual narrative style becomes apparent. This story — Margrethe (Jenn Onofrio) later claims it isn’t even a story at all, just confusion — is partly narrated, partly presented directly. The three characters share the narration, each straining to recall what happened on that fateful evening of September 1941, all struggling to discover the motives, the meaning and the moral responsibility for themselves and the others.

The tension is high as Heisenberg (Brad Wilson) approaches the “door” (Three metal chairs are the only realistic elements in Josh Budofsky’s stark white set.) of the Copenhagen house where Bohr (Josh Zeitlin) and his wife live. This is the return of a long-lost son. (The Bohrs had six actual sons, one of whom had died in a boating accident, another from meningitis.) Bohr, 1922 Nobel Prize Winner, and his apprentice Heisenberg, 16 years younger and a Nobel Prize Winner in 1932, had ruled the world of physics in the “amazing years” from 1925-1927, when they developed theories of quantum mechanics, uncertainty and complementarity.

This is also an encounter between two men on opposite sides in World War II in German-occupied Denmark, both men working towards the unlocking of scientific secrets that could create a bomb with destructive capabilities never before imagined. Why did Heisenberg at this point seek out his former mentor? What political, scientific and human motives brought him there? Why did the Allies and not the Germans get the bomb three years later? What role did this encounter play in achieving that outcome? On all sides there is awkwardness, strained silences, anxiety.

Intime’s three seasoned performers are convincing and engaging in bringing these characters to life. Mr. Zeitlin’s Bohr is warm-hearted, easily upset, ponderous in his thinking and movements, often self-absorbed. Mr. Wilson’s Heisenberg presents a contrast in style and intellect — lightning fast in thinking and movement, volatile, youthful, impatient, at times harshly naïve about the evils of Nazi anti-Semitism and the hardships of the occupation of Denmark. Ms. Onofrio’s Margrethe provides an illuminating reality check for the excesses of the two physicists with her skepticism, her bitterness about the realities of war and her wry humor and good sense. (Having typed out every draft of her husband’s papers, she too knows her physics!)

The stakes are high — politically, personally, emotionally and morally — and despite the cerebral subject matter, these characters captivate the audience, as Mr. Frayn interweaves their speculations from the perspective of post-Hiroshima and many years afterwards. As the characters replay the key moments of what happened on that evening in September 1941, Ms. Tucker uses the interesting, multi-leveled set to advantage to accentuate the characters’ thoughts, as they listen, wait, contemplate and interact with each other.

Copenhagen is an intellectual tour de force, taking its audience on a theoretical and human journey through history. It travels from its narrow focus on three characters during a particular September evening during World War II to a broad depiction of the ambiguity of human motives and memory and the indeterminacy of human history. As Heisenberg says in the closing speech of the play, this story, if it is a story at all, is about “the final core of uncertainty at the heart of things” — rich, ambitious material for the highly committed and talented Theatre Intime Company.

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