Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" is an everyday story of quantum mechanics, wave theory, the Uncertainty Principle, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. The play is, in other words, one of the most unapologetically intellectual dramas ever to hit Broadway. It's not just that Frayn asks us to follow him into the inner workings of the atom and the complex morality of Nazi-occupied Europe. It's that the play makes no effort to soften its difficulties with humor or adorn them with glamour. There are no jokes, no moments of visual or mental relief. Just three people talking - the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr; his wife, Margrethe, and his young German collaborator, Werner Heisenberg. There's not even much of a plot. The action circles around and around a brief meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg in Copenhagen in 1941. When it took place, Bohr, half-Jewish and a Danish patriot, was a virtual captive. Heisenberg, once his assistant, was heading the Nazi nuclear research program. Now, in some undefined afterlife, their ghosts hover around the moment, searching for its true meaning. Was Heisenberg trying to pump Bohr for information on the Allied nuclear program? Or was he trying to warn Bohr about the Nazis' plans? Instead of answering these questions, Frayn offers us a hu-man version of the Uncertainty Principle that Heisenberg applied to subatomic particles. Just as we can never really see these particles, the playwright suggests, we can never actually grasp human motives. Since Heisenberg can't observe his own feelings, how can anyone else decide what he was up to? As if this wasn't tough enough on the audience, Michael Baltimore's production emphasizes the play's stark, almost puritanical feel. Even Peter Davison's spare set, with part of the audience perched behind the stage on steeply raked seats, goes out of its way to look like a lecture hall. There is something noble about this insistence on taking serious things seriously. But at times, the style is really just an excuse for a failure of the imagination. The problem is not that there's too much science, but that there's too little poetry. Often, both the writing and the movement simply lack the grace and intensity that can turn dense material into compelling theater. Although the play is brilliantly conceived and superbly structured, the dialogue is sometimes lumpy and undigestible. At times, too, Baltimore's refusal to stylize the action results in a clumsy shifting of the actors around the stage. And yet Frayn's subject is so rich, and Blakemore's cast is so good, that "Copenhagen" overcomes even these fundamental flaws. Especially in the second act, the wrenching human dilemmas rise up through the abstract ideas, and Frayn's writing achieves impressive heights of passion and clarity. And while Philip Bosco and Blair Brown definitely don't live up to their names as the Bohrs, Michael Cumpsty's electrifying performance transforms the dour, arrogant Heisenberg into an authentic tragic hero. It never really explodes, but "Copenhagen" does leave behind an eerie glow.
Theater can involve itself very excitingly, very immediately in the large, tricky issues of the modern world. Tom Stoppard does it, and now Michael Frayn has brought his lively, clever mind to a collision between modernity and morality, between uncertainty and righteousness.
Known primarily as a maker of elegant farces like "Noises Off" and as a translator of Chekhov, the English playwright's attention has now been seized by an oddity in 20th-century history in "Copenhagen."
Why did Heisenberg visit Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941? Why, that is, did the 40-ish head of German physics drop in on the 60-ish, half-Jewish, half-Danish physicist who had been the father of modern atomic physics?
In 1941 Germany rules Europe, including Denmark, and has designs on the world. Heisenberg is in charge of Germany's nuclear program. Much will depend on this visit to Bohr, who has been allowed to go on functioning because of Heisenberg.
The play gives us three characters - Bohr, his wife Margrethe and Heisenberg - trying to make sense of the visit. Set in a timeless present, they are sitting in judgment on the past and reliving it.
The stage, in Peter J. Davison's excellently inquisitorial set, is set up to resemble a scientific lecture lab, with some audience members looking down on the action. The three characters emerge to circle each other, to relive, to accuse, to judge.
The director is Michael Blakemore, the energizer of "Kiss Me, Kate." He has excelled himself, moving his people about so that those under scrutiny are most tellingly in view, so that in fact they most resemble particles colliding.
Blair Brown, in a plain '40s suit, is a perfect Margrethe, a woman suspicious of Heisenberg. What could he want?
Her husband, Bohr, is Philip Bosco, a skilled, veteran actor who lets us see the man's wisdom and perspicacity shining through his professional detachment.
Heisenberg is Michael Cumpsty, and this brilliant actor achieves a great performance in the role, a man forced by life to question his certainties. This is a man at home in life, at least superficially.
He is a professor of physics at Leipzig, a job he won in 1924 with his paper on the uncertainty principle. He is married and important in 1941.
Heisenberg is a patriotic German - but not a Nazi. Perhaps he wants absolution from Bohr for working for the Nazis. Or does he want something very different - a confirmation of his weakness in practical physics, a weakness Bohr had always pointed out and that would lead to Germany's inability to produce a bomb?
This is uncertainty, the principle that he imported into modern physics.
Was Heisenberg a hero? Bohr was to escape to America, where he contributed to the A-bomb; Heisenberg built no bomb, whether intentionally or not.
At that 1941 meeting it's uncertain, but likely, that he refused to ask Bohr the very questions that would have cleared up his practical confusions and enabled him to build a bomb for Hitler.
We'll never know, but uncertainty may have been cunningly used by Heisenberg.
This is a fascinating play, convincing in its final embrace of silence.
The ghosts who have taken up residence at the Royale Theater are a restless lot, filled with a crackling, questing vitality rarely found even among the living. As embodied with disquieting fierceness by Philip Bosco, Blair Brown and Michael Cumpsty in ''Copenhagen,'' the endlessly fascinating new play by Michael Frayn that opened last night, these spectral presences just won't stop haunting one another with their questions and revisions and caveats.
Give them the courtesy of your full attention, and you'll find them taking possession of your own imagination as well, probably raising your blood pressure in the process. And who would ever have thought it: that three dead, long-winded people talking about atomic physics would be such electrifying companions?
''Copenhagen,'' a critical and (more surprisingly) popular hit when it opened in London at the Royal National Theater in 1998, is nominally about a subject with all the sex appeal of a frozen flounder: a meeting in 1941 between the venerable Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Mr. Bosco) and Werner Heisenberg (Mr. Cumpsty), his former pupil and a German, during which no one to this day knows exactly what happened.
What was said or, equally important, not said takes on increased significance when you consider the possible stakes: the success of a German project led by Heisenberg. That project was the development of atomic weapons, something in which Bohr would later have a hand as a member of the legendary team at Los Alamos, N.M.
If you're thinking that this means that ''Copenhagen,'' which has been directed with surgical exactitude by Michael Blakemore, is a tale of international intrigue, you're on the wrong tangent. There's tension aplenty in the drama, which allows Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr's wife, Margrethe (Ms. Brown), to reunite after their deaths to sort out what may or may not have happened on that September evening.
But the work's tenacious grip has little to do with straightforward plot, the essentials of which are laid out early on, or the solving of questions that are ultimately unanswerable.
Mr. Frayn, best known here as the author of the blissful backstage farce ''Noises Off,'' turns the encounter among the three characters into a wide-ranging, intensely emotional consideration of everything from quantum mechanics to the loss of a child, to the fate of the world in the atomic age, to the ways that friendships go sour; from the theories of complementarity and uncertainty to the eternal ambiguity of human motives and memory.
Most impressively, Mr. Frayn -- with a logic that keeps moving in variously widening and converging circles for which Mr. Blakemore finds wonderfully theatrical equivalents -- shows how every one of these elements is bound to, and reflects, the others. The result is the most invigorating and ingenious play of ideas in many a year and a work of art that humanizes physics in a way no other has done. And as fine as the play was in London, it has in crossing the Atlantic turned from a work of slightly chilly elegance into something of a fierier vigor.
As Margrethe keeps insisting, everything under discussion, from politics to the loftiest scientific abstractions, is finally also personal. In a wonderful speech in the second act, Bohr speaks of how 20th-century physics restored man to the center of the universe, of how Albert Einstein demonstrated that ''measurement is not an impersonal event that occurs with universal impartiality'' but ''a human act, carried out from a specific point of view in time and space.''
The unknowability of people, even to themselves, has long been a concern of Mr. Frayn's, evident in both his plays (''Benefactors'') and novels (including the recent, sparkling ''Headlong''). Here he widens the perimeters to a cosmic level -- if man is the measure of the universe, then nothing is really quantifiable -- without ever getting lost in the stars.
This isn't a play to see after two martinis; it demands your thorough concentration. But this critic, who barely squeaked through a college course known as ''Physics for Poets,'' was moved to tears not of frustration but of wondering comprehension. Mr. Frayn and Mr. Blakemore lead you through the permutations and interpenetrations of the different versions of what happened on that one night, and the events that shaped and came out of it, with care and clarity.
There is also an aspect of grand theatrical hokum to ''Copenhagen'' that, in another context, might be hard to take. This is a play, after all, that asks you to accept a trio of aggravated phantoms who say things like: ''So why did he do it? Now no one can be hurt, no one can be betrayed.''
Yet the hokum both grounds and enlivens the esoterica of the scientific explanations. It's like combining strong, seemingly incompatible spices in cooking: using one, as it turns out, lets you get away with using the other, and they wind up bringing out hidden notes in each other's flavors.
I'll admit I had doubts when I heard ''Copenhagen'' was being restaged in New York with an American cast. The actors I saw in London (David Burke, Sara Kestelman and Matthew Marsh) lent an exquisite (and utterly un-American) crispness to their performances in which the enunciation of every word seemed to harbor several layers of meaning. It was an approach that brought out the play's poetry and its intellectual gamesmanship.
Working within what is essentially the same set -- a ravishingly pristine laboratory in limbo, designed by Peter J. Davison and eloquently lighted by Mark Henderson and Michael Lincoln -- Mr. Bosco, Ms. Brown and Mr. Cumpsty have introduced their own element of uncertainty into ''Copenhagen,'' and it pays off handsomely.
Unlike their English counterparts, they appear to be starting less from the play's language than the feelings behind it. As a consequence there's a deeper heat to the relationships portrayed here and a more wrenching sense of personal loss throughout.
Initially it seems as if the performers might not pull it off. Wearing professorial vagueness like an old sweater, Mr. Bosco is the only one who seems to have found a fully shaped character to play. Ms. Brown and Mr. Cumpsty at first register as self-consciously theatrical.
As the evening proceeds, however, with the characters brushing against one another in different combinations, the resulting friction causes each to emerge more clearly, and by the end you feel you have to come to know them all from the inside out, rather than the reverse.
The ambivalent, fervid father-son relationship of the two men; the mixture of sharp marital protectiveness and subliminal resentment of Margrethe; the dizzying swings between hotly debated historical abstractions and sad recollections of personal details that evoke a lifetime of attrition: Mr. Bosco, Ms. Brown and Mr. Cumpsty summon all this with a passion that scalds.
They also transmit the spirit of ravenous curiosity in the face of doubt that shapes ''Copenhagen.'' Skepticism may be a dominant note here: no, we can't ever know exactly who we are or why we do what we do; yes, we all exist in a state of contingency.
Yet how much more interesting life is as a consequence. Definite knowledge may be unattainable in ''Copenhagen.'' On the other hand, aren't you familiar with that sensation of letdown that comes when you arrive at the end of a mystery novel? In the world of ''Copenhagen,'' no such anticlimaxes are possible. The thrill of the chase is infinite.
Three positively radioactive American stage stars give a vibrant charge to the Broadway production of “Copenhagen,” Michael Frayn’s dense, vigorously smart play about a mysterious meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941. “Copenhagen” has been a critical and — rather more surprisingly — commercial hit in London, but its prospects on Broadway are by no means assured. The play is rich with dexterously deployed metaphors drawn from the world of physics, finding particular resonance in the uncertainty principle. To extend the metaphor, a similar indeterminacy may apply to “Copenhagen’s” commercial chances in New York, a market where far less intellectually challenging plays have a tough time finding audiences. What is pleasingly certain, however, is the manner in which Philip Bosco, Blair Brown and Michael Cumpsty, quietly circling the stage of the Royale Theater under the keen direction of Michael Blakemore, find all the moving human equations in a play that in lesser hands could have all the emotional texture of a reading of the periodic table of elements.
“Copenhagen” takes place in a sort of celestial chamber that’s been handsomely designed by Peter J. Davison, and lit with great dramatic variation by Mark Henderson and Michael Lincoln. The performers revolve around each other on a blond wood disc, and the set as a whole suggests an operating theater in which the play’s three characters, now all “dead and gone,” are observed by an onstage audience that seemingly sits in judgment. Indeed, we are all here to solve a mystery: “Why did he come to Copenhagen?” asks Brown’s Margrethe Bohr in the play’s opening moments, addressing her husband, elder Danish physicist Bohr (Bosco).
The “he” she speaks of is Heisenberg (Cumpsty), a younger German scientist who was formerly Bohr’s beloved protege. The visit in question took place when Denmark was under Nazi occupation. Heisenberg, who chose to stay in Nazi Germany while many of his (mostly Jewish) colleagues fled, spent a tense evening in the Copenhagen home of his old mentor, and the import of this meeting would be debated endlessly. Bohr and Heisenberg gave conflicting accounts of the visit in later years, and Frayn’s play imagines what might have happened had the two met for a final reckoning in some otherworldly sphere.
Audiences will have to sit up and pay attention at “Copenhagen” — indeed, it would not be ill-advised to take notes. Here’s a little sample of the play’s more scientifically abstruse dialogue, spoken by Bosco’s Bohr as the physicists discuss the process of fission, the reaction at the heart of atomic energy: “Natural uranium consists of two different isotopes, U-238 and U-235. Less than 1% of it is U-235, and this tiny fraction is the only part of it that’s fissionable by fast neutrons.”
U may find it a little hard to keep up.
And in truth, some of the elaborate expositional byways the play goes down don’t seem entirely necessary. Frayn, best known on Broadway for the mathematically precise farce “Noises Off,” is clearly excited by the minutiae of physics in ways that most audiences will not be. One wonders whether a more consistently potent play might not have been created by whittling away some of Frayn’s daunting collage of historical and scientific lore. Maybe, but maybe not: The scientific ideas are so ingeniously allied to the play’s thematic concerns that it would be hard to separate them, and for the most part, Frayn has elegantly woven his digressions on theoretical physics into the fabric of the drama.
In any case, the most remarkable thing about “Copenhagen,” and particularly this brilliant Broadway production of it, is how very dramatically taut and engaging it manages to be.
Part of its appeal can be traced to the larger questions that lie behind the seemingly arcane issue of what Bohr and Heisenberg discussed at this meeting. As the play relates, Heisenberg would return to Germany and steadily continue to work on nuclear fission, while Bohr would ultimately escape Denmark and prove an invaluable addition to the Los Alamos, N.M., team that would create the atomic bomb that ended World War II. In retrospect, Frayn suggests, the meeting between them may well have been a moral turning point in the history of science.
Was Heisenberg seeking Bohr’s permission to work on the practical military applications of their discoveries in physics? Was he trying to enlist Bohr in a plan mutually to undermine both the Allies’ and the Nazis’ plans for a bomb? Was the German team’s failure to crack the key physics equations an intentional move by Heisenberg or merely the result of inadequacy? Did Heisenberg mislead Albert Speer at a famous meeting that resulted in the abandonment of Germany’s A-bomb project?
“Copenhagen” engages all of these possibilities as Bohr and Heisenberg sift through both the moral and the practical ramifications of each one, with Margrethe providing the chemical agent that keeps the reactions between the men rebounding from remembered affection to sad suspicion and back again. Their interplay may sound hopelessly dry, but Frayn has humanized his characters by keeping the dialogue as light and natural as it can be, and by showing the personal propensities and histories of the two men that may have colored their perspectives.
It’s impossible to overstate the contributions made by the cast, although Blakemore’s sensitive and ever-alert direction is equally invaluable. The performers’ commitment to this challenging play fuels the audience’s. We are held fast because the conviction of the actors tells us that its fascinations are not just intellectual but philosophical and emotional, not just a question of history but of the here and now.
Continuing a terrific season on New York stages, Brown gives fine nuances to her role, subtly making clear Margrethe’s ambivalence toward Heisenberg that is contrasted with, and inspired by, her bottomless affection for her husband.
Bosco is simply wonderful as the avuncular Bohr, deeply and joyfully inquisitive, and yet haunted by the mysteries of the past and his own responsibility in the creation of the atomic bomb. This veteran stage actor gives beautiful flourishes to Frayn’s tricky dialogue through the use of his rich and resonant voice.
In the ambiguous role of Heisenberg, Cumpsty may be most impressive of all, persuasively staking a claim to Broadway stardom with a performance of terrific humanity and theatrical potency. His powerful baritone also has a wide array of colors in it, and he uses it to create from Frayn’s densely layered writing a character of vivid emotional presence. Circling the stage repeatedly as the play rewinds tirelessly to re-examine events from another perspective, Cumpsty movingly draws us into the heart of a man torn between love for his country and guilt over the demands that are cruelly put on that love. He also vividly renders Heisenberg’s fierce bitterness after half a lifetime of defending his war work, despite the fact that, as Bohr puts it, he “never managed to contribute to the death of one single solitary person.”
The conflicted heart of Heisenberg, the mysteries of his motivation, are at the center of the play. But the idea radiates outward from Heisenberg to encompass Bohr and Margrethe, too, and ultimately all of humanity. Frayn sees the mystery of their meeting as a symbolic corollary of the scientific breakthroughs Heisenberg and Bohr made, namely the uncertainty principle and complementarity. “We put man back at the center of the universe,” Bohr says, putting the idea — for once! — in a nutshell. Science is a construct of man, and therefore is colored by the complexities of the human mind and heart.
This extraordinarily ambitious play invites us to meditate at length upon these mysteries, and the infinite possibilities for good and evil that they allow. The play’s repetitive, circular construction is vital to its meaning. There is no definitive answer to the questions about the Bohr-Heisenberg meeting because human actions are at bottom inexplicable — there is “a final core of uncertainty at the heart of things.”
You may forget all the facts of physics that “Copenhagen” copiously spews forth, but you’ll remember the experience of it and thus its essential meaning. It’s about the infinite possibilities that abound in each moment in time, the myriad thoughts that stream through each mind in such a moment, the myriad impulses that war in each heart — and the way every moment thus contains the potential to change the course of human history.