Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Also see Dean's recent review of Rock of Ages
This is one of the themes of the exceptional play Copenhagen by the English author Michael Frayn, now in production at Actors Studio 66. There are only three characters: Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, two giants of quantum physics; and Margrethe Bohr, the wife of Niels who is sometimes more perceptive than the other two. There is a lot of physics talk in the play (a little too much of it for a lay audience), but the play is about much more than quantum theory. It's equally concerned with the human interaction among the three characters, two of whom are considered among the great minds of the twentieth century.
All three characters are dead when the play opens. Their spirits come together to try to answer a question that has puzzled Bohr and Margrethe for many years: Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen and visit them in 1941? Heisenberg, about 16 years younger than Bohr, had worked with Bohr in Copenhagen for a few years in the 1920s and they were close friends. Bohr won the Nobel Prize in 1922 and Heisenberg won it in 1932. After his stint in Copenhagen, Heisenberg returned to Germany and stayed there during the Second World War. By 1941, Germany had occupied Denmark, and any relations between a Dane and a German would be viewed suspiciously by the authorities on both sides. Not to mention that Germans were not exactly made to feel welcome in Denmark. And yet Heisenberg went there.
What exactly they talked about in Bohr's home is the crux of the play. The characters see the event from different points of view, and memories are not completely reliable, so the visit is played out in several "drafts," each varying from the previous one. Even at the end, do we really know what Heisenberg's motivation was, or does it remain uncertain?
Did he want to find out if Bohr knew what the Americans were doing as far as building an atomic bomb? (There is a coincidental New Mexico connection here: It turns out that Bohr eventually escaped to Sweden, a neutral country, and then came to Los Alamos and contributed to the creation of the Nagasaki bomb.) Did Heisenberg want Bohr to lobby against building a bomb? Did he want Bohr's opinion on the feasibility of building a bomb in Germany? Did Heisenberg purposefully drag his feet on the atom bomb project in Germany so that Hitler would never have the chance to use it? Did they even talk about the bomb at all, or was it just a pleasant dinner conversation? So many uncertainties. (By now you might have figured out that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle informs both the play and this review.)
The scientific dialogue becomes slightly tiresome at times. Do we really need to hear about electron spin? Michael Frayn is using what I call the Tom Stoppard method of playwriting: Find a topic that most people don't know much about, learn a lot about it, then throw everything you've learned into a play so that you can wow the audience and show them how smart you are. If the audience can keep up with you, then they can feel pretty smart too.
Despite this quibble, I have to say that I was never bored with this production, which is a tribute to the excellent acting and directing. It's quite a workout for the actors, since all three are on stage all the time except during intermission. What a find Jay Hobson is as Heisenberg. A young actor doing his first show in Albuquerque, and he's just terrific. I hope he has time to do more stage acting here. Mathew Zimmerer (Bohr) and Zoë Yeoman (Margrethe) had to step into their roles on fairly short notice after the actors originally cast had to withdraw due to medical issues. They had only 19 rehearsals to learn this wordy play before opening, but you wouldn't know it because they're both professionals. Zimmerer perfectly conjures up the look and bearing and voice of the "Pope" of quantum mechanics, as Bohr was called. Yeoman does very well as the woman who observes patiently and knows more about human behavior than the scientists do.
Matt Heath, who is a wonderful comedic actor, is not who I would have expected to be the director of this play, but it just shows how multi-talented he is. He elicits fine performances from the actors and keeps the play moving, helped only by the lighting effects of Pete Parkin. No props, no special effects, no music. This is theater stripped down, but it's all that a play of ideas needs.
Actors Studio 66 is a fairly new theater company in Albuquerque, run by a very small group of people committed to putting on plays that have some relevance to the world we live in. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons are not something we can just forget about. If you want to learn more about two of the men who were especially responsible for bringing them into being, see this play. And even if you couldn't care less about Bohr and Heisenberg, see this play anyway for its humanity and for the acting.
Copenhagen runs through February 12, 2023, at Actors Studio 66, Black Cat Cultural Center, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30; Sundays at 2:00. For information and tickets, please visit www.actorsstudio66.org.