Intimate, Lucid Copenhagen A Must for Serious Theatergoers
Also see Bob's review of The 39 Steps
The fact based Copenhagen is an examination into the motive for the visit which German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg made to the home of his Danish mentor Niels Bohr and Bohr's wife Margrethe in Copenhagen in Nazi occupied Denmark in October, 1941. Setting the play in the hereafter, where Bohr and Margrethe are meeting yet again with Heisenberg in order to sort out their relationship and variously evaluate and/or justify their behaviors, allows Frayn to place the events of Heisenberg's fateful visit in the light of the broader scope of their lives and the broader history of nuclear development throughout the Second World War.
It is has been written that Copenhagen is a play about physics and, as such, its popularity is surprising. And there is no denying that, in the second act, the discussion about emerging schools of physicsparticle physics, wave physics, complementary physics and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (the act of observing a particle in some manner affects its behavior)is overwhelmingly extensive. However, for the most part, the theories of physics are elucidated in broad and basic laymen's terms and provide a unique framework for the play's main issues which are of deep interest to all thoughtful people. Copenhagen, like all of the best plays, is principally about relationships, values, morality, the soul, the complexities of the human condition, and the inevitable elusiveness of divining truth.
Heisenberg veers from denying that he sought to pick Bohr's brain and, in actuality, used his position to sabotage Germany's nuclear development program to admitting the more likely truth that he was seeking Bohr's knowledge and insight, and, being a nationalist, wanted Germany to obtain nuclear weaponry. However, Frayn leaves the question open, specifically applying the uncertainty principle of physics to human behavior. Unfortunately, the playwright has another set of ideas up his sleeve with which he delivers a late second act surprise which upsets the apple cart and somehow renders the actions of German nationalist Heisenberg more honorable and humane than those of Bohr. Frayn's moral contortions here are twisted and troubling, as well as dangerous when they become the basis for the world view of the intellectual elites and political leaders of free, democratic nations confronted with inhuman, mass murdering dictators. At one point, Frayn has Bohr observe that, while physics can teach so much about the human condition, it is extremely tricky to apply accurately. Ultimately, in doing so, I think that the brilliant and talented Frayn goes overboard.
Within the confines of Luna Stage's flexible main stage theatre, James Glossman has staged an intimate, passionate, and crystal clear production which illuminates every line and every corner of Michael Frayn's powerful and thought-provoking play. Staged in a tight circle (emulating the semi-circle of stage seats behind and to the sides of the cast in the Broadway production) surrounded by four banks of seats with the actors employing the aisles and rearward corners, and pacing about the stage in search of elusive truths, there is an exciting flow to the proceedings. Although ideas are central here, Frayn has provided rich details in his portraits of Bohr, Heisenberg and Margrethe and their relationship. Paul Murphy magnificently portrays the conflicted Bohr who is torn between his hatred of Fascism and his love for a disappointing spiritual son with whom he has replaced his own tragically deceased one. Even more impressive is the unfailing clarity of the words, complex ideas and emotions which cascade in stunning profusion from him. I would be so bold as to say that the veteran Murphy has the role of his career in Bohr and he does both the role and himself full honor.
Linda Setzer is a moving and most believable Margrethe as she struggles to loyally help her husband deal with his conflicted emotions despite being contemptuous of Heisenberg and hurt by her husband's embrace of him. Ian Gould subtly conveys the hypocrisy and underlying moral void in the soul of Heisenberg. Appropriately, there is nothing overtly villainous in his performance beyond a nervous darkness in his darting eyes and an immature callowness in his demeanor. Well done.
Copenhagen is a brilliant, intellectually and emotionally engaging work of high art that is highly unlikely to disappoint anyone. To see Copenhagen as well and intimately staged as it is here is a rare treat.
Copenhagen continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Sun 3 pm) through May 20, 2012 at Luna Stage Theatre Company, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, New Jersey 07052. Box office: 973-395-5551; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.lunastage.org.
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn; directed by James Glossman