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Regional Reviews: Philadelphia


Also see Tim's reviews of The Piano Lesson and The Odd Couple

Douglas Campbell, Keith Baker and Moira Wylie
In 1941, German physicist Werner Heisenberg arrived at the home of Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. These men were friends and colleagues, Bohr having taken Heisenberg on as a sort of protégé in his lab decades before, and the relationship between them had grown into something almost familial. Still, given that Bohr was half Jewish and Heisenberg in the pay of the Nazi party by 1941, things had grown strained, to say the least. No one knows why Heisenberg risked a trip into occupied Denmark to visit his former mentor, and no one knows what passed between them. All that is known is that Heisenberg walked out of Bohr's home and the two physicists never spoke again.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen explores the question of what happened. Set in a sort of hereafter, the spirits of Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr's wife Margrethe appear before the audience to speculate on the events of that day. Bristol Riverside Theatre's production, under the able direction of Edward Payson Call, places that meeting on a simplistic, functional set. The curved, studded walls give the impression of the interior of a reactor, or even of a sort of missile or bomb, which is appropriate, considering the majority of the dialogue revolves around the race to use nuclear energy to create an atomic bomb. Designer Greg Mitchell does the rest with a few suggestive painted lines, an impressive lighting display, and a large model of an atom kept on a pedestal off to the side, leaving the center space wide open for its three players to fill.

Fill it they do. As Bohr, Douglas Campbell is superb. After more than 60 years on the stage, Campbell is clearly right at home, and his utterly natural performance is the highlight of the evening. Revolving around the figure of Bohr like electrons around a nucleus are, of course, his wife and his former student. Moira Wylie is Campbell's real-life wife, and she uses this to her advantage as Margrethe Bohr. Between them, husband and wife create a delightfully deep and nuanced relationship, and Wylie's sharp, to-the-point wit serves as just the right foil for her husband's Bohr, a man who is always dreaming, always speculating in the realms of possibility. And Keith Baker's Heisenberg is solid; often, when things get going between Heisenberg and Bohr, the dialogue practically sings. There are, however, moments where Baker seems to almost try too hard, particularly within his monologues, and when compared to the ease of Campbell in almost everything he does, these moments stand out stylistically.

Still, while the performers are all certainly well worth the price of admission, the difficulty lies in Frayn's play itself. The story is long - almost three hours - and it revolves around nothing but a few speculations about what occurred when two men met and why. Given that these men were titans in the field of physics, particularly nuclear physics, the story becomes part personal drama and part lecture, and the topic of that lecture is extremely heady. The story proceeds something like an experiment itself; given that there is no definitive answer to Frayn's question, he proceeds through a series of hypothetical reasons, testing each of them out through dialogue before resetting the whole evening. The conversation revolves around Heisenberg's work for the Nazis, Bohr's reasons for traveling to Los Alamos, and how the men make sense of one another's decisions during the war. It is indeed a drama about two very human men who make mistakes and are judged for them, as dramaturg Adam Goldstein points out in his notes, but the extremely heavy scientific elements of the story make it difficult to fully appreciate. For most of the play, the science behind the actions of these men is so advanced, and presented so technically, that we are left trying so hard to make sense of the physics behind the story, we are allowed little opportunity to make sense of the physicists who should ultimately be the heart of this drama.

Copenhagen runs through March 30. Tickets are $29-$36 and are available by calling the BRT Box Office at 215-785-0100, or online at

Cast(in alphabetical order)
Werner Heisenberg: Keith Baker
Niels Bohr: Douglas Campbell
Margrethe Bohr: Moira Wylie

Director: Edward Payson Call
Scenic/Lighting Design: Greg Mitchell
Costume Design: Linda Bee Stockton
Sound Design: Brad Criswell
Dramaturg: Adam Goldstein
Production Manager: William S. Crandall
Production Stage Manager: Blair Walsleben
Original Music: Keith Baker

Photo: Susan Atkinson

-- Nancy Furey

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