London Hit Copenhagen Comes to New York

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Michael Frayn’s
Copenhagen is written as a speculative reconstruction of a difficult
1941 reunion between two famous theoretical physicists, the German Werner Heisenberg
and the Danish Jew Niels Bohr. No one really knows why Heisenberg, head of the
German nuclear program, went to see his old mentor and friend, at considerable
risk to both, in the middle of the war. Historians and the men themselves have
offered conflicting reasons–to ensure Bohr’s safety; to pump him about
the Allies’ nuclear research; to consult him on technical questions and
perhaps recruit him for the German side; to intimate that he was deliberately
stalling the German atom bomb program and wanted Allied scientists to do the
same–and Frayn has used this mystery to frame an extraordinary drama about
the philosophical, ethical and political implications of uncertainty.

The unlikely
conceit of the play, a surprise critical and popular hit in London with a different
cast but the same director (Michael Blakemore), is that human beings, in all
their complexity, can be fruitfully likened to subatomic particles. Thus, Heisenberg
(Michael Cumpsty), Bohr (Philip Bosco) and Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Blair
Brown) are placed in a circle with three chairs, beneath an elegant blond-wood
gallery containing real spectators (a sort of baiting-ring-cum-international-human-rights-court,
designed by Peter J. Davison), and set loose to play out multiple scenarios
of what may have occurred at that tense 1941 meeting.

They say to
the audience that they are ghosts and imply that they’ve come to work out
unfinished business with only the facts available to the living (an arbitrary
but helpfully grounding premise). And since much of their passion in life was
channeled into matters of quantum mechanics it’s wholly plausible that
they should use such matters (questions of particle attraction, repulsion and
spin, for instance) as metaphors for their personal issues of trust, friendship
and love, not to mention the larger questions about the limits of human discovery
and the survival of the species that are raised by nuclear weapons research.

The real triumph
for Frayn and company was to get the general public to accept all this in something
close to the same passionate spirit as the participants. With marvelous actorly
flair, the three ghosts thrust, parry, taunt, cajole, caress, badger and soothe
one another in thoroughly fascinating ways, speaking now as historical figures
suspicious of each other and fearful of Nazi surveillance, now as historians
studying those figures, and now as editorializing spectators still in the historical
present but capable of temporarily stepping outside the action. The idea that
behavior changes when observed is not only kept constantly before the audience
but also given different nuances as the play goes on.

Bohr, for instance, is somber and only vaguely distrustful before Heisenberg
"arrives," but then he’s flush with twinkle-eyed animation, even
in anger, whenever the younger man is "present." (All three are actually
onstage the whole time.) Square-jawed and rugged-faced in a natty green suit,
Cumpsty’s Heisenberg, in contrast, is boyishly open yet utterly inscrutable–that
is, until he starts to soliloquize, at which point he suddenly seems wholly
trustworthy. Brown’s Margrethe, for her part, is a sort of unassuming buffering
force keeping the strongly charged men at a safe competitive distance, but when
she’s directly drawn into the discussion she becomes her husband’s
aggressive ally–after Heisenberg tastelessly brings up the accidental death
of the Bohrs’ eldest son as a cheap comparison to his own dilemma, for

these figures talk themselves into a sort of inspiring stalemate whereby no
final blame is assigned and no factual dispute is really settled, but the undecidability
of all the rigorously posed questions is regarded as a blessing. Another aspect
of the play’s achievement, then, is that Frayn actually manages to breathe
fresh life into a philosophical trope that, toward the end of the last century,
became something of a fashionable cliche: that is, extending Heisenberg’s
famous uncertainty principle (which predicts an absolute limit on the accuracy
of subatomic measurements) into a general cultural principle of indeterminacy.
Heisenberg says at the end of the play: "Our children and our children’s
children. Preserved, just possibly, by that one short moment in Copenhagen.
By some event that will never quite be located or defined. By that final core
of uncertainty at the heart of things." It’s a testimony to the clarity
and elegance of his, Bohr’s and Margrethe’s previous dialogue that
this speech doesn’t make the audience cringe.

is a bit of a surprise coming from Michael Frayn, who studied philosophy at
Cambridge but who is best known in the U.S. for the wonderfully tight backstage
farce Noises Off. It’s possible that I’m ignorant of equally
disquisitory plays of his that never made it across the Atlantic. In any case,
this latest work adds impressively to the already stunning canon of modern dramas
built on dilemmas of modern science and scientific ingenuity. Copenhagen
might be called a Shavian philosophical discussion tucked into a quasi-historical
ghost sonata, with echoes of Shaw’s Man and Superman, Brecht’s
Galileo, Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,
Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Physicists and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.
Its strongest echo, however, is no doubt of the eloquent and prolific Heisenberg
himself, who wrote a number of books (see the delightfully odd and occasionally
cagey Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, for instance)
in a spirit akin to a dramatist’s, explicating his beloved scientific concepts
by way of lucid, quasi-fictional reconstructions of historical conversations.

Royale Theater,
242 W. 45th St. (betw. 8th Ave. & B’way), 239-6200, through Sept. 3.

By Martin Sherman
If Copenhagen
is a fine example of how the pleasures of listening and learning, when they’re
intense enough, can make theatergoers forget the absence of colorful technical
effects and physical activity, then Martin Sherman’s Rose is the
opposite–a play that asks people to watch and listen to a single, static
figure for two hours and 20 minutes but never justifies that demand. Directed
by Nancy Meckler and performed by Olympia Dukakis, Rose is about Rose
Rose, an 80-year-old woman whom Sherman conceived as a sort of portmanteau of
Jewish experience in the 20th century. She sits on a wooden bench in a large,
dim, charmless room (part of a "sitting shiva" ritual, it turns out,
whose cause isn’t clear until near the end) and launches without preamble
into an improbably polished narration of her improbably eventful life. (The
issue of improbability is central, because if the story is true, then there’s
something obscene about parading it as mediocre drama, and if it’s fiction,
then the catalog of awful experiences, all of which are real to others, is tasteless.)

She tells us
of: pogroms she witnessed in her Ukrainian shtetl of Yultishka; her life in
the Warsaw Ghetto, where she presumed her husband killed and saw her little
daughter murdered; her survival in the Warsaw sewers and sufferings in an Allied
refugee camp; her illegal boat journey to Palestine, where she was turned away
by abusive British officials, only to receive a marriage proposal from an American
Jewish sailor who swept her away to New Jersey and fathered a son with her;
her management and then ownership of a hotel; her summoning of the dybbuk of
her first husband; her son’s marriage to a gentile who converted to Judaism,
became an extremist settler in the Israeli-occupied territories and gave birth
to a boy who was later even more fanatical and shot a young Arab girl (hence
the shiva); her adventures in a Connecticut commune where she smoked dope and
wore beads after her second husband died; her third marriage and move to Miami;
and finally her silent, chance encounter with her first husband in an obscure
souvenir shop in the Arizona desert.

As with David
Hare’s monologue Via Dolorosa, which played on Broadway last year
and traveled some of the same territory, there’s no question that many
spectators will learn some history that they didn’t know from this densely
packed play. The trouble is, the density is itself so contrived, and Rose’s
situation in the dramatic present is so unclear for so long, that the piece
never sustains emotional involvement for more than few minutes at a time. Dukakis
is appropriately genial and spunky, and she can jerk a tear now and then. Unfortunately,
her thick Yiddish accent is unconvincing and she never seems to believe in the
character fully herself.

Sherman has
exacerbated this problem by sprinkling the text with dozens of slick theoretical
formulations and punch-line-like witticisms that strike utterly false notes
for a woman of Rose’s reported experience. To wit: "I suppose if you
have your first period and your first pogrom within the same month, you can
safely assume childhood is over"; "There were now ghettos, black ghettos
surrounding the hotel strip, and since victims of prejudice seem susceptible
to the disease themselves, Atlantic City just packed up and moved to Florida."
The result is a painfully well-meaning evening that never finds solid strands
of connection with its audience.

Lyceum Theater,
149 W. 45th St. (betw. B’way & 6th Aves.), 239-6200, through May 20.