Uncertainty lies at the root of British playwright Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen.” Moral uncertainty. The ambiguity of memory. The fog of history. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Even as this 1998 play deals with the absolutes of science and mathematics, it wrestles with moral dilemmas and impossible to determine questions amid the Nazi rise to power before and during World War II.
On stage at Theater J of the Edlavitch DCJCC in Washington until Jan. 29, “Copenhagen” is a surprisingly engaging intellectual exercise, particularly for science lovers who will appreciate the complicated passages dealing with theoretical physics and quantum mechanics.
Director Eleanor Holdridge uses a spare, open set, drained of color, designed by Luciana Stecconi, to represent another world, one where large light circles suggest atomic particles and transparent vertical blinds define space; for the play takes place after its three characters — eminent Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his wife, Margrethe, and German physicist Werner Heisenberg — have passed away. Are they in the “great beyond” of heaven? It seems more like purgatory, as the three sift through their relationships and try to answer the unanswerable question: “Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen in 1941?”
As innocuous as this unanswered query sounds, it is at the crux of the play and still, for historians, a mystery. Bohr, the father of quantum mechanics, a theory that suggests the smallest particles of matter can emit and multiply energy as orbiting particles or waves, came from a wealthy Jewish family on his mother’s side. Founder of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen, he was part of a cadre of prominent and groundbreaking Jewish scientists, among them Einstein, Schrodinger and Oppenheimer.
German national Heisenberg was Bohr’s student and worked on pioneering theoretical problems that paved the way for nuclear fission and the modern nuclear age. At 31, the young German won the Nobel Prize for physics, but by 1936 Heisenberg’s work was being decried by the Nazi Party and other prominent German scientists.
Defamed as a “white Jew” for his collegial scientific relationships with many of the Jewish physicists, he distanced himself from his Jewish colleagues to enhance his standing in Nazi Germany. On the German fission research team, Heisenberg purportedly worked on alternate energy sources, i.e., nuclear reactors. But there is much evidence to suggest that the team was working on a nuclear bomb.
Thus the mysterious Copenhagen visit takes primacy. Was Heisenberg trying to gain information for his German project? Or was he trying to discern whether Bohr’s Jewish colleagues, most who decamped to the United States and Los Alamos, were building an atomic bomb?
Or, perhaps, Heisenberg wanted a way out, and he thought Bohr could help. Who is guilty and who is innocent? (The playwright even echoes those questions, “Who shall live and who shall die?” from the High Holiday liturgy.) In Frayn’s consideration of this historic conundrum, he shuffles and reshuffles the deck, providing varying reasons, as the three characters recall what happened from their individual points of view, each coming to a different conclusion.
Holdridge sets her actors in orbit, especially in the second act, where they separate and come together like sparring neutrons and electrons on the mostly bare stage.
Bohr (gray-haired Michael Russotto in a fatherly portrayal), Heisenberg (the sometimes hot-headed Tim Getman as the approval-seeking student) and the always proper Margrethe (Sherri Edelen, who shows steeliness and intellect and stands up to these two formidable minds) clunk along with some heavy-handed acting in act one. The pace and the intensity pick up in the second act.
Ultimately, the question of why Heisenberg’s trip mattered is one of seeking blame and absolution. Who deserves what, though? Frayn — whose 10 novels include “The Tin Men,” and his many plays, including the Tony Award-winning farce “Noises Off” — leaves the answer to history, which is undecided on the matter.
The only two who can set the record straight — Bohr and Heisenberg — are dead. Their legacies live on.
“Copenhagen” clocks in at more than two and a half hours — it’s a talky play. And, for those audience members who may have struggled through high school physics (as this writer did), the heavy dose of scientific explanation — of concepts like quantum physics, complementarity, nuclear fission and others — can be overwhelming. But, in Frayn’s script, Margrethe serves as the Everyperson. If a concept can’t be explained so she can understand, the scientists haven’t done their job.
“Copenhagen,” through Jan. 29, Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets start at $37. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.