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Uncertainty principles

Heady Copenhagen offers a meeting of the minds


Nazi Germany's leading physicist, Werner Heisenberg, paid a visit to his mentor Neils Bohr, a half-Jew living in occupied Denmark, in the autumn of 1941. Why Heisenberg went to such lengths to meet Bohr during wartime, and exactly what they said to each other, is far from certain -- which is rather fitting, since Heisenberg found fame as the author of physics' Uncertainty Principle.

Michael Frayn uses the ambiguous 1941 meeting as the fissile material of his head-spinning play Copenhagen. The playwright puts their fraught get-together at the dead center of the 20th century itself, arguing that events of enormous scientific and political import both built up to and resulted from it. Copenhagen does justice to concepts of enormous complexity and historical import, while providing robust character studies of Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr's wife, Margrethe. Contending with such a deep, dense script poses challenges for 7 Stages' production, which mostly lives up to it.

The action doesn't take place in 1941 per se, but in a kind of dramatic afterlife in which Bohr (Bill Chameides), Margrethe (Hope Mirlis) and Heisenberg (Tal Harris, appropriately Aryan) can speak with each other. Not only do they flash back to things they said, they can expound on what they were thinking and what they could have said at the time.

Margrethe guardedly serves tea as two of the giants of 20th-century physics agreeably rehash old times. Eventually, Heisenberg reveals his agenda to ask Bohr a deceptively simple question: Should he pursue the practical applications of atomic energy? Which Bohr understands to mean, should Heisenberg conduct research that could give Hitler the atom bomb? Given our present-day debates over how we should deal with dictators holding weapons of mass destruction, it's a highly relevant point.

Copenhagen explores whether Bohr has blood on his hands for his contribution to the Manhattan Project, and speculates that Heisenberg may have deliberately diverted the Nazis' attempt to successfully build their own bomb. Yet the play offers more than just ethical debates, providing Cliff's Notes versions of the scientists' careers, the cornerstones of quantum physics and the history of the American and German nuclear programs. The play's most haunting image shows Heisenberg near the end of World War II, nursing a faulty nuclear reactor that evokes Pandora's Box.

It's admittedly heady stuff, and Frayn has the physicists speak at the rarefied level we'd expect to two scientific geniuses. The audience can be grateful for Margrethe, who not only encourages them to talk in "plain language," but provides pragmatic reality checks. Protective of her husband, she holds Heisenberg accountable for his actions, not his intentions, and points out that the friends did their best work when apart.

The play so thoroughly and movingly explores its issues in the first act that by intermission, it feels surprisingly complete. Frayn's second act doesn't ignore physics or politics, but digs a little more deeply in the character's personal relationships. The shift proves a boon to Harris and Mirlis, whose performances feel stuffy and restrained in the first act, and more loose and passionate later on.

Perhaps to keep Copenhagen from feeling like an evening of talking heads, the 7 Stages' production can be overly fussy, featuring a distracting quantity of sound effects. Light proves an important metaphor in the play, but the show's numerous lighting cues also seem too busy, adding more confusion than clarity.

Directed by Joe Gfaller, Copenhagen provides such rich discourse that it risks exceeding your cranial capacity, unleashing more ideas than you can absorb in a single sitting. But the play rewards your efforts to keep up with it, setting off a chain reaction of thoughts and revelations in your own head.


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