I never took a physics class, and any bits of knowledge I have picked up along the way have been rather haphazard. But the breathlessly audacious production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen now at Luna Stage taught me much about this hot-button science, about the power of drama and about the bonds of friendship, as well.
With the threat of nuclear devastation looming, Copenhagen is a timely comment about humanity and the responsibilities of scientists dealing with such (pardon the lame pun) explosive matters. In 1941, German atomic physicist Werner Heisenberg traveled to Nazi-occupied Copenhagen to visit his old friend and mentor, renowned Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Working together as "father and son" in "the family business," the two men had revolutionized nuclear science in the 1920s, but the friendship and collaboration had been broken with the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of World War II. Bohr, a Jew, found himself threatened with extermination, while Heisenberg allied himself with the Nazi regime out of a sense of nationalism and self-interest, for he envisions himself at the center of German science after the war ends (with the Nazis presumably victorious).
Why Heisenberg came to see Bohr at a time when the Allies and the Germans were racing against each other to develop atomic weapons remains a mystery, but the play allows Frayn to reunite the two men beyond time (posthumously, really) to explore what did or didn't happen at that fateful meeting. Over the course of two hours, Bohr and Heisenberg wrestle with the bonds of country, friendship, conscience, love and loss in a world that is on the verge of being split apart, much like the atoms that concern them so deeply.
James Glossman's masterful direction keeps the bond between the men stretched so tightly that one almost dares not breathe for fear of missing a word, a phrase, an idea. Ian Gould (Heisenberg, left) and Paul Murphy (Bohr, center) whirl around the playing space like two electrons spinning around an atom's nucleus. Occasionally, Heisenberg flies off to a corner or mounts a stair to the seating section (the play is performed in the round) while Bohr often paces across the space, north to south and east to west, as well as around the center. Watching the proceedings (and commenting on their import) is Linda Setzer as Bohr's wife Margrethe (right), who has typed and retyped their findings so often that she understands what they are talking about although she is not a physicist herself. She is a keen observer of the two, so her opinions are central to the plot.
Murphy and Gould make the competition between Bohr and Heisenberg palpable. Attempting to "top" one another, the two actors talk very fast, continually spouting scientific facts and theories they seem to understand and feel very passionate about. Murphy's description of what happens in atomic fission is clear, even to a former high school English teacher! Of course, Bohr was keen on using "plain language" to describe complex scientific events, and Frayn and Murphy use that fact to great effect.
With Robert J. Oppenheimer et al working on an atomic bomb that would decimate Hiroshima and Nagasaki a mere four years hence, one wonders why the German efforts in this area lagged so far behind. Frayn's explanation is so simple, so stunning as to be almost unbelievable. Why hadn't Heisenberg built a reactor that could split the atoms of the Uranium-235 isotope? Why did this scientist so interested in the mathematics of physics (he says, "Math is sense") not do the calculations necessary to compute just how much U-235 (so difficult to extract) was needed for such a bomb, making his reckoning so far off the mark?
Gould superbly conveys the younger Heisinger's arrogance and supercilious attitude toward theoretical physics (a discipline thought by Germans to be inferior because it was studied mainly by Jewish physicists like Einstein). His tightly wound character shows off to his mentor just how well he's done in life. Murphy's Bohr is more fatherly, yet he pushes his former student's buttons in an attempt to get him to reveal just why he's come to Copenhagen. After all, the Danish Jews' position under an occupying force of Nazis is very precarious, a fact that Heisinger doesn't (or refuses) to understand. He's clueless when he asks, among other gaffes, whether Bohr has gone skiing recently in Norway! And Setzer's outstanding performance as Margrethe provides the anchor to the two men whirling around her and gives the two men the humanity they richly deserve.
Over the course of 120 minutes, Gould and Murphy spin in all directions like the very electrons they study. Margrete sits quietly, like the central nucleus, knitting, observing, commenting. Yet the entire performance never feels frantic or rushed, just engrossing. Carrie Mossman's spare, evocative set provides the perfect space for this atomic friendship and collaboration to split apart, while Richard Currie's terrific lighting design directs our eyes to Heisinger as he moves into the corners or the aisles. Deborah Caney has attired Murphy's Bohr in a casual cardigan sweater perfect for a semi-retired academic; Gould's Heisinger wears a suit and tie, as befits a Nazi functionary more than a driven scientist. Jeff Knapp's sound is so unobtrusive as to go almost unnoticed, a plus in an atmosphere so fraught with scientific theories and competition.
While I confess that I don't totally understand the complexities of the theories espoused by the two characters in Copenhagen, playwright Michael Frayn gives us enough information to understand the dilemma facing scientists from America and Germany over building this powerful weapon that would change the world forever. What he and director Glossman, Gould and Murphy do best is involve us in the complex relationship between Heisinger and Bohr, and we find ourselves saddened by the loss of that friendship and collaboration. Fancy what would have happened had they worked together for the good of humanity.
Copenhagen will be performed at Luna Stage, 555, Valley Road, West Orange, through May 20. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. For information and tickets, call 973.395.5551 or visit www.lunastage.org .
Photo Credit: Amanda Faison