Theater Review

Copenhagen Mixes Mystery, Science and History at Main Street Theater

Atomic scientists from World War II meet in the afterlife with unresolved questions from the past.

By Doni Wilson February 13, 2017

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Highlighting the complex relationship between German physicist Werner Heisenberg and Danish physicist Niels Bohr during World War II, Michael Frayn's 2000 Tony Award-winning drama follows the ghosts of the late scientists, as well as Bohr's wife Margrethe, as they revisit their 1941 encounter in Denmark. Copenhagen presents a profound and stirring exploration of how scientific principles, particularly Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Bohr's Complementarity Principle, can be used as a metaphor for our most intimate and subjective relationships.

The minimalist set boasts three chairs and uses yellow lighting to flashback to 1941 Copenhagen and blue lighting to reflect the characters as ghosts discussing personal motivations and the ethics of developing weapons for their respective countries during wartime. However, as the play progresses, the two physicists reveal their ambivalence about decisions made during their careers.

Joel Sandel (Bohr) and Philip Hays (Heisenberg) excel at depicting the scientists' personalities, who have somewhat of a father-son relationship that is strained by scientific ambitions and the thorny politics of World War II. Hays conveys the professional pressures felt by Heisenberg, saying, “I carry my surveillance around like an infectious disease.” Furthermore, the dramatic irony of his seemingly selfish decision to not aid the Germans in building an atomic bomb are not lost on the audience. Celeste Roberts as Margrethe Bohr is convincing as a skeptical wife with her own scientific knowledge, plus a wry and critical eye.

All three actors carry their demanding roles with aplomb, and director Guy Roberts should be commended for adapting these roles to the intimate venue of Main Street Theater, as he brought to life the character's complex emotions. They are surprisingly sympathetic, emphasizing that everyone had to be political in order to protect themselves, as well as the security of scientific inquiry during wartime. 

Although the history of this Copenhagen visit is veiled in mystery, the play asks us to consider multiple interpretations of it, allowing us to understand the limits of objectivity, not only in science, but in the realm of the political and the personal. Frayn brings up a myriad of difficult issues, including how we deal with grief, how we let politics get in the way of pursuing knowledge and how ambitions determine decisions. As Heisenberg remarks, “The more I’ve explained, the deeper the uncertainty becomes.”

This relationship between how we narrate our lives and the “truth” is one of the play's most compelling themes. As Frayn himself noted, “What they are all about in one way or another is the way in which we impose our ideas upon the world around us.” In Copenhagen, the high stakes of those impositions are vividly dramatized. Frayn also brilliantly has allusions to Elsinore, the Danish castle where Shakespeare's Hamlet is set, deliciously underscoring the theme of uncertainty and reminding audiences how it only takes a minute, or in this case, a pivotal 10-minute walk, in which everything can be reversed. 

The characters' scenario speaks beyond the grave and begs the question: Does revisiting the past bring heavenly resolution or is it a hellish recipe for regret? In any case, Frayn reexamines history and the psychological dimensions of fear and anxiety during politically dangerous times. If you thought the moral obligations of the scientists would be clear, you leave with a broader understanding of how complicated those questions are. The play presents more epiphanies than you bargained for, and that's what makes Copenhagen worth the trip.

Thru Mar 12. From $10. 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706.

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Editor’s Pick From $10 Main Street Theater

In Michael Frayn’s Tony Award–winning drama from 2000, three ghosts—of physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg and Bohr’s wife Margrethe—convene to revis...