Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who died in 1976, was best known for his uncertainty principle, which says that one can never know for sure the behavior of subatomic particles because that behavior is distorted by the very act of observing. But he is nearly as famous for a major uncertainty in his career. As chief of Hitler's nuclear program, he headed the losing side in the race to develop the atom bomb. Was he simply not as smart as his fellow German scientists, the ones who fled Hitler and did their crucial work for the Allies? Or, as some historians have suggested, did he have moral qualms that led him to refrain from pushing the Nazis to develop a bomb?
That question is at the heart of Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen. Frayn (Noises Off, Benefactors) focuses on a mysterious visit that Heisenberg paid in 1941 to occupied Denmark to visit his old mentor, the physicist Niels Bohr. No one knows what they talked about. But by reassembling the principals with a free-form blend of re-creation and narration, Frayn offers some intriguing speculation. He clearly sides with the Heisenberg defenders: his Hitler loyalist raises the key moral questions about building the bomb that have plagued scientists (and dramatists) ever since.
Much praised in London, Copenhagen has arrived on Broadway undiminished. Michael Blakemore's shrewd production has the characters circle each other on a nearly bare stage, like electrons. Michael Cumpsty, as Heisenberg, lets just enough doubt peek through his German stiffness; Philip Bosco, that U.S. stage vet, brings a continental avuncularity to the role of Bohr; and Blair Brown holds her own as the rather superfluous third wheel, Bohr's wife Margrethe.
Yet Copenhagen is an easier play to admire than to enjoy. Frayn's dialogue is heavy with exposition, both dramatic and scientific, and despite some human filigree (references to the drowning death of Bohr's son), the characters remain heads in search of bodies. In the end, the play is too speculative for history, too cerebral for drama. Frayn's postscript to a published edition of the play, describing the scholarly debate over Heisenberg's motives, is oddly more compelling than the play itself. Sometimes even elegant drama can't match the vibrant uncertainties of history.
--By Richard Zoglin