Maryann Rousseau, second left, with actors: Richard Boynton, Susan Keenan & John Newkirk
By Philip Pearce
The Listening Place has a new production of a script that fits perfectly into its readers’ theater format. Michael Frayne’s Copenhagen isn’t about physical action or linear plotting. All that “happens” is two men go offstage for a walk and then come back. What it’s about is the things that happen inside the heads of its three characters, the inspired fallibility of their motivations, the brilliant inexactitude of their memories and the teasing uncertainty of their human judgments.
The trio consists of impetuous German physicist Werner Heisenberg, his thoughtful and cautious Danish physicist-mentor Niels Bohr and Bohr’s sharp-witted wife Margarethe. By 1941, Heisenberg had grown from star-struck trainee scientist to head of Hitler’s nuclear research team. Separated by war and nationality from his pre-war friends the Bohrs, Heisenberg paid them a visit in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen at the height of World War II.
The meeting was as disturbingly brief as it was presumably significant. Assuming without question the premises are bugged, the two men set out on a walk, leaving Margarethe and the audience ignorant of what passes between them before they return a quarter of an hour later, shaken and, from that day onward, estranged.
Why has Heisenberg elected to come and what was said on that walk to change European atomic research and shatter a deep friendship? Act I homes in on that loaded question in terms of the past glories, contradictions and ironies of the three-way partnership, all of it packaged in a kaleidoscope of 20th century scientific history and physics with elements that become metaphors for the relationships, as do memories of past hikes, ski races, poker games and ping pong matches.
There being no Nazi tapes, reasons for the meeting and the ensuing estrangement are offered by Bohr and Heisenberg as the first act ends.
Moving with other Listening Place patrons out onto the patio of Monterey Museum’s La Mirada branch, I felt dazzled by Frayne’s erudition but baffled as to what else there was left to say. The key question had surely been answered by the only two witnesses in a position to know.
Depends what you mean by “know.” In one of the most brilliant second acts I’ve experienced in a long time, Frayne revisits the earlier material in new ways that prove this isn’t really a play about nuclear physics or the Second World War. It’s not even about why two wartime physicists met hopefully and parted bitterly across Allied/Axis battle lines. It’s about what we humans know, or think we know—how we come to know it or think we do—and however wise and wonderful we may believe it, how flawed and inadequate all of that is.
An alternative title Michael Frayne might have chosen for this extraordinary play is the label attached to Werner Heisenberg’s most celebrated scientific breakthrough: the Uncertainty Principle.
Director Maryann Rousseau achieves a satisfying clarity and pace in presenting a daunting wealth of information and nuanced characterization. It’s hard to imagine her finding a better cast than this one: Richard Boynton, always a theatrical live wire, shows an impressively intelligent insight into the rocks and shoals of Heisenberg’s changeable nature. John Newkirk, in a welcome return to the local theater scene after several years away on a Peace Corps mission, is wise and avuncular as Bohr without ever being predictable or dull, and Susan Keenen is an incisive and often disturbing force as the no-nonsense Margarethe.
Copenhagen has only one more performance on Sunday at 1:30. You park in the MPC lot nearby and a shuttle transports you if you don’t care to walk up the hill to La Mirada. Your $10 museum entry ticket, producer Linda Hancock assures me, can be re-used for admission to Listening Place’s popular holiday potpourri in December, to be presented at the main Museum venue on Pacific Street.