"Everyone understands uncertainty," German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Stuart W. Schleuse) remarks early in Michael Frayn's dense drama Copenhagen. He doesn't just mean that uncertainty belongs to the human condition. The Nobel laureate refers to the enduring interest in the Uncertainty Principle, which asserts, in a dumbed-down version, the inability to observe an event without influencing it. Heisenberg meant the measurement of particles on the quantum level, but contemporary artists such as the Coen Brothers use it as a metaphor for the inability of people to find objective truth in real life.
Both definitions apply in Copenhagen, a play that sums up quantum physics while pointing out the difficulty of defining events. Copenhagen attempts to re-create a meeting in 1941, when Heisenberg visited his mentor Niels Bohr (Curtis Krick) and his wife Margrethe (Lorilyn Harper) in German-occupied Copenhagen. The production shares the strengths of a lively lecture or documentary more than conventional stage plays. The Academy Theatre's stark presentation gamely engages with some extremely heady content.
Despite the Bohr household furnishings on the set, Frayn doesn't really set Copenhagen in Copenhagen, but rather a limbo where Heisenberg, Bohr, and Margrethe engage in posthumous conversation. On the fateful day in 1941, Heisenberg and Bohr had a conversation that ended swiftly and angrily. In the play, the characters not only re-enact the event, but also describe their careers before and afterward. It's like they serve as their own historians, putting their actions in context and explaining their intentions.
Their falling-out supposedly hinged on Heisenberg's seemingly innocuous question: Should he pursue the practical applications of atomic energy? Bohr immediately assumes that Heisenberg, as Germany's leading physicist, may pursue research that could give the Nazis an atomic bomb. But did Heisenberg deliberately steer the Nazis away from developing their own atomic bomb? Could Heisenberg have built one even if he wanted to? It's easy to see why Frayn and generations of writers would focus on an encounter that takes place at an intersection of scientific discovery and global military conflict.
Krick's bull-like Bohr continually puts Schleuse's timid Heisenberg on the defensive, while Harper's sensible Margrethe brings their technical discussions down to earth. The conversation gets heated, but since the characters don't experience the action in the present, the drama has little immediacy. It doesn't help that the production takes place before a plain black backdrop, so the audience must spend two hours in an unwelcoming void. Fortunately, Elisabeth Cooper's lighting design helps explain some quantum theories in visual terms.
Copenhagen's second act backs away from the historical record to seek human metaphors for the behavior of atoms. While it serves as an interesting thought experiment, I had to resist an urge to tune out. At times Copenhagen seems to share the properties of the lumps of uranium the physicists discuss. It's heavy and compacted, but full of illuminating energy, and the Academy Theatre releases as much as it can.
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