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A CurtainUp Review

Mathematics is so different when applied to people. One plus one can add up to so many different things
--- Werner Heisenberg
Mathematics, as well as physics and philosophy, also add up to many different things when dramatized by Michael Frayn and exquisitely staged by Michael Blakemore. While Copenhagen, which revolves around a meeting between the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Michael Cumpsty) and his mentor Niels Bohr (Philip Bosco) during World War II, is without a doubt the most cerebral play you're likely to find on Broadway this season, or any time soon, the sum total of its parts equals a thrilling theatrical experience. It is a historical detective story set against the background of one of the 20th century's pivotal scientific events.

Attentiveness is required but that does not mean its subject matter will overwhelm those not versed in nuclear physics. Yes, Heisenberg and Bohr and Bohr's wife Margrethe (Blair Brown) do talk about complex principles but the real hub of Mr. Frayn's play is their equally complex friendship and the motivation behind their mysterious wartime meeting and its termination of the relationship that began almost twenty years earlier. The fact that you will go home knowing more about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and atomic fissions than you're likely to have picked up in dry schoolroom lectures and textbooks is simply an added bonus.

As the above comments make clear I heartily second James Walters' review of the production which dazzled, and is still dazzling, London theater goers (linked below). His concluding statement that this is a theatrical masterpiece that engages the audience on every level and doesn't let go from beginning to end is not hyperbole. Since the plot summary can be found in that review I'll focus on how the staging has transferred and whether the American cast members have invested the play with the same keen intellect and passion as the London actors who created the roles.

In Philip Bosco, Michael Cumpsty and Blair Brown Director Michael Blakemore has fortunately found three Americans who are fully up to the difficulties of the dialogue. Bosco's Bohr and Cumpsty's Heisenberg articulate their scientific and personal issues with forceful and, yes, emotional articulation. Their achievement is best compared to those rare American actors who can speak Shakespeare's lines naturally but with flair.

Blair Brown, last seen as the red-haired, voluptuous Gretta Conroy in James Joyce's The Dead (our review) is equally impressive as the plain looking and keen-minded Margrethe Bohr who acts as commentator and buffer as her husband his erstwhile protege re-live three versions of their encounter. Her presence gives a sharp, easily comprehended focus to the play's actions, emotions, and ideas. As Bohr puts it, "all [their talk of mathematics] must be explained to Margrethe" (and thus the audience). When at the beginning of the second act she assumes the role of impatient prosecutor and introduces a more personal perspective on the central question of Heisenberg's motivation there is a wonderful interchange between husband and wife. To his accusation "You have a tendency to make everything personal" she snaps back imperiously and unarguably "Because everything is personal!"

As with the London cast, Mr. Blakemore has skillfully directed his actors so that there's never a hint of "talking heads." Even the monologues -- some internal, some addressed to the audience -- are never static. His orchestration of the meeting has lost none of its rhythm with this new trio re-enacting Frayn's various versions of the encounter.

The confining yet stunning metaphorical set has transferred beautifully, turning the conventionally configured Royale into a stunning theater in the round on which the arguing actors spin round and round, like so many atoms. Some three dozen members of the audience once again sit in a balcony that evokes a university lecture hall, like students (or judges?). The lighting, this time co-credited to Mark Henderson from the London production and Michael Lincoln, subtly intensifies each shift in time and perspective. The off-stage noises (in this production by Tony Meola) underscore the intensity of the circular, and thus unending, verbal battle towards some sort of understanding.

The seminar on The Making of Copenhagen which took place at the City University Graduate Center before the play's opening showed that scientists are still puzzled about why Heisenberg sought out Bohr in 1941 and what happened when they met. Michael Frayn's provocative play provides three possible might-have-beens but no pat answers. Unlike scientists who recognized his achievement as the discoverer of the Uncertainty Principle but in the final analysis condemned him for helping the Nazis develop nuclear fission for wartime, the philosophically trained Frayn makes no judgments. He allows Heisenberg to state his case, as he allows Bohr to show his sense of betrayal when he suspects Bohr of fishing for information -- and as he allows Margarethe to slyly tell him "Uncertainty -- you have a natural affinity for it" and refuse to let him off the hook about building the bomb ("You didn't build a bomb because he didn't understand fission!").

In short, Frayn -- and these fine actors -- do what people in the theater are supposed to do. They make you think.

For our review of the London production go here
our feature on the recent seminar The Making of Copenhagen . It includes photos of the physicists involved, the playwright and closeups of Bosco, Brown and Cumpsty.

By Michael Frayn
Directed by Michael Blakemore
With Philip Bosco as Niels Bohr, Blair Brown as Margrethe Bohr, Michael Cumpsty as Werner Heisenberg.
Set: Peter J. Davison
Costume Design: Charlotte Bird
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson and Michael Lincoln
Sound Design: Tony Meola
Royale, 242 W. 45th St. (Broadway/8th Av), 239-6200
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Perfromances from 3/23/2000; opening 4/11/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 4/08 performance

The Broadway Theatre Archive

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