Copenhagen

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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Arts Reviews
All the Way
All the Way
In Zach Theatre's staging of this epic political drama about LBJ, the fight for civil rights feels particularly urgent

Robert Faires, May 1, 2015

Random Acts of Magic
Random Acts of Magic
The 2015 batch of Out of Ink 10-minute plays is a satisfying buffet of silliness and thoughtfulness

Elizabeth Cobbe, May 1, 2015

More by Robi Polgar
<i>National Geographic: Symphony for Our World</i>
National Geographic: Symphony for Our World
The breathtaking natural history footage combined with live symphonic performance sent a noble message: Save the Earth

Aug. 3, 2018

Review: 2018 Austin Chamber Music Festival
Review: 2018 Austin Chamber Music Festival
How the Attacca Quartet, Emerson Quartet, and invoke played

July 17, 2018

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

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

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle