Local Arts Reviews

Copenhagen: Talking It Over ... and Over and Over

Austin Playhouse, through Nov. 3

Running Time: 2 hrs, 25 min

Copenhagen, a study of two of the 20th century's greatest physicists, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, provides an evening of turbulent drama, disturbing ironies, intriguing questions, but, ultimately, a less-than-satisfying stage play. For all its smart tangents and historical explorations, for all its creative insight into the humanity of both men, this drama by noted novelist and sometime playwright Michael Frayn manages to avoid telling a story in the two-plus hours that his characters interact in their confined space. Rather, it repeats riffs on the ramifications of a particular conversation the two men had, allowing them to relate their personal experiences to the audience -- interesting enough, but rather pointless without some concluding context. Are these men going to go at it forever, a physicist's Waiting for Godot?

The overriding question, the jumping-off point for the play, is just what was said the night the German Heisenberg showed up on the doorstep of the Danish Jew Bohr in 1941, when the Nazis had overrun most of Europe and the competing master physicists of Germany and the Allies were struggling to unlock the secrets of the atom. They were both fascinated and horrified by the possibilities: generating infinite amounts of power fueled by a never-ending nuclear reaction, thus serving mankind, or conceiving, constructing, and using a nuclear weapon based on that same reaction, thus devastating mankind. Any of the versions of that conversation might be true, but which? And exactly how true? In replaying each thesis on the events of that meeting, strands of the two men's lives, intertwined as they were with the Holocaust, the development of nuclear weapons, and their own personal sacrifices and triumphs, are slowly unraveled. Unfortunately, they are balled up again in a too-hasty, too-tidy finish. Rather than doom his characters to revisit and revisit their lives through this one, world-shattering dialogue, Frayn just finds a neat little out, and that's that.

Perhaps, then, rather than Beckett's Godot, which never really ends, Frayn's play is more like Sartre's No Exit, where there is stasis at the finish. It is set in a kind of purgatory, and helping the two men resolve their replays of that meeting is a woman, Bohr's wife Margarethe, although there isn't a hint of sexual tension here. Margarethe moderates the repetitive explorations of what happened the night that Bohr's protégé visited, often obstructing the action and causing shifts in the relationship between the two men, once as close as father and son, now separated by gulfs of ethnicity, nationality, age, and ego. In this Austin Playhouse production, Margarethe is played by Mary Agen Cox, who portrays Bohr's intermediary wife with a single-minded dislike for Heisenberg, which dulls the complexity of her character. As Bohr and Heisenberg, Ev Lunning Jr. and David Stahl make fine sparring partners, although after a while, there appear to be only two speeds to them both: intensely emotional rivalry or rather personable chumminess.

Director Don Toner has staged a good, if unexceptional, production to inaugurate Austin Playhouse's new venue at Penn Field on South Congress, and a lovely little chamber it is, intimate and perfect for an audience to "celebrate the human experience," as Toner and company propose in their mission. The trouble may lie in Frayn's script, full of intriguing ideas but somehow lacking as a story.

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Copenhagen, Michael Frayn, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Austin Playhouse, Mary Agen Cox, Ev Lunning, Jr., David Stahl, Don Toner

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