I recall attending a play years ago when, just as the performance was about to start, the theater manager stormed in and accused a few innocent audience members of not having paid for their tickets. He may as well have shot an actor while he was at it, for no theatrical magic could be worked following this destructive little prelude.
An equivalent damper is applied to the hopes of those entering the Carousel Theatre for Kate Buckley’s broadly adequate production of Copenhagen. On arrival we are shouted at—yes, shouted at—to stay off the actors’ walkways as we find our seats. Tricky, given that the play is quite rightly being presented in the round. Sure enough, we all stray here and there (through mischief as much as necessity), and this results in a bit more shouting. Followed by a lengthy play about physics.
Michael Frayn’s 1998 three-hander charting the murky waters of Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr’s mysterious wartime meeting in the eponymous city is a difficult work for audiences and actors alike. The uncertainty principle dominates not just the content but the form of the play, and Frayn’s deliberately futile attempts to pin down the unknowable remind us that experience and memory have cores as nebulous as those of the atom. The play probes two great minds at the unexpected intersection of science, politics, and morality, and as such forms a pleasing companion piece to last year’s The Life of Galileo at the Clarence Brown.
“Serious” Frayn—as he is here and with, say, 2003’s Democracy—is generally less assured than his comic alter ego. Noises Off is of course well-loved, but nothing of Frayn’s has ever touched his film Clockwise, a masterpiece as perfect as anything by Mozart.
With Copenhagen, Frayn does not honor the Stoppardian bargain of providing one good joke for every 90 seconds of detailed philosophical stuff, and so we need a gripping cast to sustain our interest. Sadly we don’t quite get this. David Brian Alley is a neat, compact, and urgent Heisenberg, and Dan Kremer, a great stage presence, gives us a Neils Bohr of gravitas and warmth. But neither radiates a full command of the text, and there are a few moments when we begin to fear a major upset. Things may have tightened up by now, but it’s unlikely that Linda Stephens’ humdrum Margrethe Bohr is much altered. In fairness it’s not much of a role—the character is often simply a device to force the scientists to use layman’s terms. Nevertheless, the part does have a comic potential which is never entirely realized here.
A hazard of theater in the round is that one can easily find oneself watching the audience opposite instead of the actors in between. The couple in my sight line had seen fit to bring along their two children, and their optimism is rewarded in the section of the play in which Bohr complains of the rebuffs he experienced from Germany after World War I. Adorably, the children take the metaphor at face value, and howl with laughter at the image of an entire country angrily biting an old man’s hand.
Indeed, this is not the first time that the very young have entertained me in the Carousel. One item in last year’s MFA showcase featured very strong language, and in the prior blackout, at some pre-arranged signal, a couple of 8-year-olds sprinted out of the theater with their hands clamped over their ears as per stern parental instructions. This exodus was performed with such innocent glee that one could only reflect on how few years remained before curiosity would replace obedience as the primary thrill.
It is of course this very tension—the zero-sum compromise between inquiry and loyalty—that lies at the uneasy heart of a patriotic scientist like Heisenberg. The most powerful moments of the play come when the intellectual arguments give way to a desperate kind of vertigo as these men look down on a world they could—despite being dead—still yet destroy.