Time Bomb

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is a play of ideas; I see them as white balls zigzagging through a bright white sky in a constant and dizzying display. The protagonists are Niels Bohr and his onetime student Werner Heisenberg -- leaders among the group of scientists who transformed the world's concept of physics and, hence, of reality -- along with Bohr's wife, Margrethe. In 1941, the two men were working on opposite sides of the great chasm caused by World War II. The half-Jewish Bohr was living in occupied Denmark; eventually he would escape to the United States and work on the bomb project at Los Alamos. Heisenberg was heading Germany's attempt to develop nuclear weapons. Inexplicably, and having surmounted grave difficulties to do so, Heisenberg paid a visit to his old mentor, a visit that ended in acrimony. That much is historically true. Historians and scientists have argued and speculated about the reason for Heisenberg's visit and the content of the two men's conversation through all the years that followed. Though both protagonists mentioned the meeting in writing and in conversation, neither ever provided a clear explanation.

The conundrum of the Copenhagen meeting clearly fascinated Frayn, who has invented an after-death conversation among Bohr, Margrethe and Heisenberg during which they re-create and comment on several versions of the visit. Each begins with the crunch of Heisenberg's shoes on the gravel of the Bohrs' path, the front door swinging open, the scientists facing each other with a mixture of wariness and joy.

Why did Heisenberg go to see Bohr? To warn him of the German bomb program? To discover how far along the Allies were in their work? To convince him that the two of them could persuade their respective sides to abandon the entire deadly process? To receive absolution from the man he thought of as the conscience of science? To offer some kind of protection?

And why, given his brilliance, did Heisenberg ultimately fail to develop a nuclear weapon for the Nazi government? Was it ineptitude? Did he sabotage the program, either deliberately or subconsciously?

Each possible answer carries a differing ethical freight. Heisenberg was reviled by many of his fellow physicists for his work with Hitler. Yet this work destroyed nothing and killed no one. Whereas kindly, principled Niels Bohr bore part of the responsibility for the murder of tens of thousands of Japanese men, women and children.

Quantum theory proposes that a particle of energy or matter can behave like either a particle or a wave. Following this, Bohr proposed that a particle is, in fact, in all possible states simultaneously until it is measured. What the play is exploring is the possibility that all the explanations of Heisenberg's motivations and of the visit itself are in some sense true.

The play's abstractions are grounded by the very human interactions of the characters, their ambivalences, the mixture of love and distrust they feel for each other. Bohr is thoughtful, deliberate, sometimes a little vague, while Heisenberg is impatient, fast-thinking, arrogant and tormented. Margrethe functions as the fulcrum of the play. She's fiercely protective of Bohr, and angry with Heisenberg for coming, but she's also firm-minded, compassionate and quick to point out the human ramifications of the men's lofty scientific ideas.

Copenhagen couples a genuine search for truth -- historical, ethical, intellectual -- with an acknowledgment of the impossibility of fully understanding anything, least of all the human heart. It also functions as a lament for what Frayn calls "our ruined and dishonored and beloved world," where horror and beauty, decency and equivocation are inextricably tangled.

Director Bruce Freestone has brought some interesting ideas to his staging of Copenhagen, but overall, the production lacks the necessary clarity. The three characters are placed on an empty stage. Periodically, a piece of furniture slides in from the wings to denote a specific place: three stools, a park bench, a red armchair representing the Bohrs' living room. On one level, this is effective, giving the action a ghostly, unanchored quality and underlining the fact that the entire play takes place in memory, but -- like the interpolated sounds of bombs and Beethoven sonatas -- it's also distracting. Once one stool has moved across the stage to stop obligingly at the feet of a specific actor, you find yourself fixated entirely on when the second stool will appear and which actor it will choose, instead of listening to the dialogue. The use of lighting is confusing, too. Sometimes a speaker is left in the dark, or dimly illuminated; sometimes someone's face is bathed in bright light, as if he were under police interrogation. Again, this periodically works: The lighting makes a phantasm of a character or seems to illustrate the effect of light on a particle. But on the whole, the device is distracting. These concepts might work better if Freestone had access to more sophisticated technical equipment.

It's Gregory J. Adams as Heisenberg whose strong performance carries the production, though every now and then I would have liked him to underplay a little. Nonetheless, his clear phrasing and precise acting choices are exactly what this play needs. Ken Fenwick seems to be holding back as Niels Bohr, and Deborah Todd gives a rather florid performance as Margrethe. Still, OpenStage does communicate the intricacies of one of the most fascinating plays to come along in decades.