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Blinded With Science

An Onstage Confrontation Between Two Physicists Succumbs to Inertia

Fission, Not Frisson: (from left) James Gallagher, Cherie Weinert, and Robert Riggs deliver good performances in the static Copenhagen.

By John Barnard | Posted 2/25/2004


Michael Frayn

Theatre Hopkins through March 14

Two brilliant scientists, old friends, mentor and student, caught on opposing sides of a global conflict, grapple with personal demons, national allegiances, the shady forces of the Gestapo, and the potentially eschatological implications of their work over after-dinner cocktails under the persistent dusk of a Danish summer evening. One could almost pitch the scenario to Jerry Bruckheimer, or at least to Louis Malle: something like Good Will Hunting meets My Dinner With Andre meets Pearl Harbor--which is only to say, when dealing with atomic weapons, international intrigue, and the mechanics of genius, it's hard not to be interesting. However, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, now running at Theatre Hopkins, is less like the harrowing intellectual drama the material suggests and more like a dramatic reading from the Encyclopædia Britannica.

The story focuses on the mysterious meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in September 1941. The two had been friends and colleagues, collaborating to spearhead the development of quantum mechanics, but by the time of the meeting Bohr was a half-Jewish "subject" of occupied Denmark, and Heisenberg, despite political repercussions for teaching what the Nazis called "Jewish science," was leading the atomic research program for the Reich. Naturally, the substance of their meeting has been cause for much historical speculation, and, even with the recent release a number unposted letters from Bohr to Heisenberg, the details of their meeting remain uncertain.

Perhaps no single aspect of quantum theory is as widely known to the layperson, and certainly none is as ripe for literary exploitation, as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. The principle holds that, at the particle level, position and momentum can never be precisely simultaneously determined because the act of observation affects the particles observed. The result is that phenomena cannot be described or predicted with the exactitude suggested by classical physics. Frayn uses the principle as the metaphorical fulcrum of the play, offering a speculative reconstruction in the form, as Heisenberg (James Gallagher) tells us, of "a series of glimpses," a variety of possible interpretations.

These interpretations, which constitute the dramatic strength of the play, reach a high point toward the end, when Heisenberg, Bohr (Robert Riggs), and his wife, Margrethe (Cherie Weinert), draw the real human conclusions--about personal ambition and fallibility, fear of failure, problems of national allegiance in times of moral crisis--from the swirling abstractions of politics and science. However, the extensive buildup is plodding and didactic, and feels like a lecture intended to bring the audience up to speed on the basics of 20th-century physics.

The actors all performed well: Gallagher was a compelling and sympathetic Heisenberg (though the Bohr letters might suggest a less sympathetic Heisenberg than Frayn's script); Riggs delivered a nuanced Bohr, shifting easily from boisterous indignation to paternal understanding and regret; and Weinert's Margrethe, who acts as something of a "humanizing" influence to draw the particle scientists back into a world where at least some certainty is possible, at times teetered on the brink of histrionics, but never quite crossed the line, ultimately producing a fine tension.

Other productions of Copenhagen, with the luxury of a larger stage, dramatize the situation with a circular set, around which the actors progress like the electrons they describe. Such movement is impossible at the tiny Theatre Hopkins venue, which, while perhaps emphasizing the diminutive qualities of quantum phenomena, really just lends an unfortunate constriction and stasis to the show, reducing the dynamic possibilities to a series of speeches, which, it must be admitted, are often less exciting and informative than an hour alone with the encyclopedia.

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