The bare circular stage for Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Copenhagen—occupied only by three actors and three plain wooden chairs—is never meant to represent a specific place or time. True, the basis for Michael Frayn’s thrillingly smart 2000 Tony Award-winning play comes from a specific historical event—a September, 1941 meeting between quantum physics pioneer Niels Bohr (Ross Bickell) and Werner Heisenberg (J. Paul Boehmer), Bohr’s protegé and head of Germany’s World War II nuclear fission program, at Heisenberg’s home in Copenhagen. But Copenhagen is not, as it is cunningly set up, a speculation on what actually took place at that much-speculated-upon meeting. It’s a speculation not just on why it’s impossible to know what took place, but a cry of existential despair over the futility of attempting to know anything. And that’s just one of a few dozen astonishing insights Frayn scatters throughout his masterful work so liberally they might as well be discarded candy wrappers.
At the center of the tale is that meeting—viewed in retrospect by the participants—which ties together world-changing events and one very personal relationship. Heisenberg, a patriotic German who grew up in the chaos of post-World War I reconstruction, may be seeking information that will help the Third Reich win the race to produce the first atomic weapon. Bohr, his Jewish mentor in occupied Denmark, tempers pride in his one-time assistant and surrogate son with despair over Heisenberg’s current masters. Circling around them is Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Joyce Cohen), who may understand their relationship better than either of the two men themselves.
Director Bruce K. Sevy paces Frayn’s challenging text like a sprint through an intellectual obstacle course, so you’d better be prepared to keep up. Physics concepts play a critical role not just in the ideas of its subjects, but in the thematic structure of the play itself, so Frayn takes us on a dizzying ride through the properties of uranium-235, Heisenberg’s famed “uncertainty principle,” wave theory and critical mass—just for starters. Frayn covers so much ground that it seems impossible that he could do justice to every topic on his radar. The exposition-heavy dialogue weighs the play down in the early going, leading to a fear that its thinkiness may sink it.
But as its ideas start to come together, Copenhagen evolves into something absolutely revelatory. As Frayn begins interweaving notions of scientific ethics, right-or-wrong nationalism, history, memory and particle dynamics, the multiple ideas never become a burden to one another. What Frayn has accomplished is an application of Heisenberg’s groundbreaking work to the infinitely unknowable human mind—a kind of metaphysical physics. As he teases us with Heisenberg’s puzzled mantra—“Why did I come to Copenhagen?”—the playwright develops a theory as shattering to the study of history as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was to the study of matter. He’s not here to explain this intriguing historical footnote, but to stick a fork in the idea that we can know the minds of people long-dead when we know so little of our own minds.
It would take a perverse act of will to sabotage such a remarkable text, but the PTC crew knows when to accentuate it and when to get out of its way. Joe Payne and Phil Monat contribute minimalist sound and lighting design, respectively, collaborating on one shudder-inducing moment. Bickell and Cohen do strong work as the Bohrs, but J. Paul Boehmer is riveting as Heisenberg, whose tangle of ego, patriotism and personal morality anchors the play’s headier elements. Frayn is smart enough to make character the soul of the piece—no matter how intellectual it may get—and Boehmer nails the role.
It’s easy for potential viewers to get squeamish about a work that aims so squarely above the shoulders, but no one should be scared off by an evening of theater that will leave you dizzy at its wit and passion as much as its brains. At every collision, Copenhagen’s conceptual particles release more energy, until the play itself becomes a chain reaction of mind-bending theories rocketing around the stage.