Quantum physics? To be fair, what's on stage at the Royale Theater isn't a lecture or some science class gone wrong. At the center of the story--the nucleus, so to speak--is a mysterious 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr (Philip Bosco) and Werner Heisenberg (Michael Cumpsty). Bohr is widely considered the father of modern atomic physics; Heisenberg is renowned for his uncertainty principle ("you can never know everything about the whereabouts of a particle," the character explains). Bohr was the mentor; Heisenberg his surrogate son. Bohr was Danish (and half-Jewish); Heisenberg was German. In 1941, Copenhagen was under German occupation. In war speak, the two were enemies. "But why?" asks Bohr's wife Margrethe (Blair Brown), to begin the show. "Why did he come to Copenhagen?"
No one, of course, knows for certain; Frayn doesn't claim to be answering that question. Most likely, it had to do with nuclear fission and weaponry--the atomic bomb, to be precise--its scientific intricacies, its political implications, for Germany, for Denmark, for the rest of the world. Physics and politics. How those two disparate fields were inextricably entwined. All the pieces to the puzzle are laid out early on--and most everyone in the audience will chuckle knowingly when Bohr chides Margrethe, "My love, no one is going to develop a weapon based on nuclear fission." So where's the drama, you ask? It's all in how it's played out.
The characters talk of "drafts" like they're preparing a thesis, readying something for publication. So the playwright gives us a few drafts, a few scenarios--actually, the same scenarios, with slightly different variables. The genius of the writing (and, in fact, of Michael Blakemore's subtle, wonderfully precise direction) is that it never gets old; it all gets played out full circle.
And speaking of circles, you'll notice quite a few of them at the Royale Theatre. (You might recall that atoms are usually represented by circles. Particles move in circles. And you thought 8th grade science was totally useless.) The theater has been converted into something of a circle: The set incorporates two levels of curved banquettes which seat another 30 or so audience members. The stage floor (constructed with the same unvarnished wood of the banquettes) is laid in one big circle. And, within that floor, the movement of the actors is also circular. Nothing is strictly linear. All this could be enough to make you dizzy. Rather, it's fiercely engaging.
That's largely a credit to the cast. Philip Bosco, who can rage and bluster with the best of them, always manages to unearth the poignancy underneath even the most hard-edged characters. (I'm thinking particularly of his red-faced, yellow-gartered Malvolio in Nicholas Hytner's waterlogged Twelfth Night; or, in another Lincoln Center appearance, as a drifting grandfather in A.R. Gurney's gentle Ancestral Voices.) Here, Bosco plays scientist, father figure, husband, confessor, and "pope" (the character's own term), and carries them all off with his usual aplomb and surety. As a rule, I find Michael Cumpsty either self-righteous (David Leveaux's Electra) or condescending (1776); here, he is a surprisingly appropriate combination of both, tempered with a dash of immaturity and a touch of humility. His Heisenberg emerges as both prodigal son and unlikely wise man. Blair Brown has probably the toughest task--holding her own opposite two forceful male characterizations--but she's up to it. Perhaps her experience in wordy, time-traveling dramas (Arcadia) and World War II-era Europe (Cabaret) has helped.
At one point, Bohr chastises his wife that she has "a tendency to make everything personal." But, she retorts, everything is personal. That is why Frayn's play works so well--indeed, works at all. The terms and theories and explanations floating around the stage (like electrons) are nothing if not defining points in the personal relationship between these men. They don't speak in differential equations, they speak as men--amazingly intelligent, influential men, certainly--but first as men, then as scientists. Take Heisenberg's passionate ode to Germany: "Germany is all the faces of my childhood, all the hands that picked me up when I fell, all the voices that encouraged me..." It's a surprisingly poetic, undeniably affecting outpouring of loyalty, confusion, love, and self-examination--and it's among the best writing to be found in the theater today. All you have to do is sit and listen. Fortunately, the powers behind Copenhagenmake it pretty easy.