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Stages of science

Copenhagen's conclusions are foregone

By Brad Rosenstein

 

'SCIENCE IS ROOTED in conversations," Werner Heisenberg noted in his memoirs, and playwright Michael Frayn takes him at his word in Copenhagen. This unlikely hit in New York and London is a torrent of talk – serious and complex talk of the kind that seems to have become completely extinct in commercial theater. Inspired by the famous 1941 journey made by Heisenberg, then toiling in Germany on atomic projects for the Nazis, to see his mentor, Niels Bohr, in occupied Denmark, the play delves into the essential question "Why did he come to Copenhagen?" That refrain of Bohr's wife, Margrethe, in the play sums up the speculation of myriad scientists and historians in the decades since.

No one knows precisely what was said on Heisenberg and Bohr's short walk together. Was Heisenberg trying to enlist Bohr's aid for the Nazis' nuclear experiments? Was he proposing a treasonous bargain to forestall the development of an atomic bomb by Germany if the Allied side agreed to the same? The play brilliantly makes the mystery itself the subject, fusing Heisenberg's uncertainty principle with Bohr's complementarity principle to express its own "Copenhagen Interpretation" of history: characters behave as both waves and particles, their movements difficult to observe and their motives complex and often contradictory. Frayn creates a structure as spare and as ostensibly objective as a laboratory, in which Bohr (Len Cariou), Margrethe (Mariette Hartley), and Heisenberg (Hank Stratton) are all ghosts, still trying to figure out the truth of their fabled meeting even in the afterlife.

As the trio pose various hypotheses and try them out, director Michael Blakemore's inspired staging takes Frayn's metaphors even further, propelling the characters like electrons through dynamic circular orbits on their endless walks (one destination, pointedly, is Elsinore). Peter J. Davison's Bauhaus-spare set is the essence of modernist thought, swept nearly clean of human clutter. It also provides a neat summation of the post-atomic age: a sterile U.N.-style surface behind which the chaos of nuclear holocaust continues to threaten. Blakemore and Davison even make the evening into a meditation on theater-as-physics, including galleries for onstage spectators who view the proceedings and the rest of the audience: observers observing observers as collectively we change the phenomena we see.

I watched and listened to Copenhagen with interest and boundless admiration for its rigor, its craft, Frayn's beautifully articulated dialogue and thought, and the production's nearly faultless realization of all of the play's ambitious dimensions. But I never for a moment felt pulled into the evening emotionally, even as Frayn drew insightful parallels between physics and the play's tortured, Hamlet-like patterns of fathers and sons; focused on the pain of ruined friendships and destroyed countries; and compassionately parsed the tug of commitments to family, nation, truth, and conscience. Cariou does wonderfully authoritative work as Bohr, but Hartley generally seems distant from her role (which should serve as a fiery catalyst), and only Stratton's lonely, haunted Heisenberg emerges fully as a complex human being rather than a theory to be disproved.

Emotional involvement may seem beside the point to Frayn's artfully constructed argument, but in fact it is emotional and not intellectual understanding that his characters are struggling toward in their passionate, imaginative experiments. The rarity of such a smart, serious play in the mostly frivolous theatrical mainstream has sparked extravagant claims for Copenhagen; some have even trumpeted that its lean, rigorous conception heralds a new direction for the theater. But to me the play feels more like the closing chapter of a century of modernism, its Rashomon-like reassessments of reality and its historical uncertainties representing a distillation of our culture since 1945.

The question of who has the bomb, which underlies so much 20th-century anxiety and art, is once again becoming a source of major concern. But the ramifications of that question in our own time will require more than 20th-century atomic metaphors to be adequately understood. And for all of Copenhagen's far-reaching achievements, I couldn't help feeling that its conclusions were a bit foregone. Just as Bohr and Heisenberg, despite their cultivation of mind-bending paradox, radiate a core of certainty in their natty suits and perfectly shined shoes, so Frayn seems a little too eager to chalk up all of our enigmas to "that final uncertainty at the heart of things." Copenhagen is, finally, a little too certain of its uncertainty, both as justification and consolation.

'Copenhagen.' Through Feb. 3. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.), Curran Theatre, 445 Geary, S.F. $34-$68. (415) 512-7770.