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Theater Review:

"COPENHAGEN" at The Shubert Theatre


A critical message – cryptically buried – in Michael Frayn’s atomic bomb-themed drama, "Copenhagen," fails to satisfactorily surface. In this disappointing production, directed by Michael Blakemore, of an equally deflated play -- which snared more than one Tony Award in 2000 – audiences will have to slog through volumes of dramatized physics lectures to attain a rather basic idea: How far can technology be removed from human compassion?

By the end of this 140-minute scholarly exposition – now in a limited engagement at the Shubert Theatre -- most audiences may have passed out from severe mental exhaustion before unearthing such a pressingly relevant notion. The sleep-inducing quality of the play was embarrassingly evident by the number of audience members, who were seated on stage around the action in a courtroom-style gallery, dozing in full view of the public.

Now "Copenhagen" will certainly appeal to an academic crowd. But, in that case, why not tour universities? A compelling dramatic story is required of a play; and Frayn’s intelligent but bone-dry spewing of facts and formulas sorely lacks any emotional urgency.

And that’s very sad – considering the gravity of the play’s hypothesis. It’s really about balancing intuition with reason. But "Copenhagen" ultimately gives us a lot more factual cataloging than heartfelt drama – reinforced by Blakemore’s cold, sterile staging.

"Copenhagen" is based on the actual meeting, in 1941, between Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his German colleague Werner Heisenberg during the Nazi occupation of the titlular city. When Heisenberg asked Bohr, "Does one as a physicist have the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy?," Bohr allegedly responded with hostility and asked his colleague to leave.

The play then tracks the development of the atomic bomb and how the United States was capable of dropping it before the Germans. Serving as a bridge between – and perceptive observer of – these two central characters is Bohr’s wife, Margrethe. The Bohrs’ walk a tightrope between trusting Heisenberg and suspecting him of being a spy. This secular trinity circles the sparse stage – with the only traces of emotion reflected in Mark Henderson’s and Michael Lincoln’s lighting design – in an attempt to re-stitch the real motives behind Heisenberg’s visit. Their stylized gestures and almost automatonic placing of three chairs in symbolic formations underscore the coldness of their subject matter.

But the cool restraint of this production – while reflecting the core of these scientists’ guarded misunderstanding – does not bring us into a moving or ethically torn realm of the human heart. So "Copenhagen" essentially reinforces the stereotype of science’s removal from genuine feeling – even though we later learn of Heisenberg’s humanity-driven impulses. However, we’re also left wondering if Heisenberg concocted his own legend.

The play opens with the three characters announcing that they are "all dead and gone." They proceed to re-examine a meeting, which may have changed the course of history, with the same scrutiny they would apply to a physics equation. A vain attempt at injecting a soul into the play is restricted to an annoyingly repetitive flashback of the Bohrs’ eldest son’s drowning. It is accompanied by dimmed lights, intense head-on stares and the screech of a seagull – the scene later becoming a dreadful parody of itself and evoking more laughter than grief.

And the surprisingly wooden cast – especially Len Cariou as Bohr and Hank Stratton as Heisenberg – further distances the audience from these characters’ agonizing moral dilemmas. Only Mariette Hartley as Margrethe infuses wit, frustration and conviction into the production. But she, too, is held at bay by the script’s insistence on icy formality. Peter J. Davison’s dowdy tweed costumes for the Bohrs and a less-structured hunter-green suit for Heisenberg are not enough to bridge the gap between codified rigidity and uninhibited curiosity.

Of course, "Copenhagen" exists in a swirl of assumptions and uncertainties. But despite these scientists’ repeated efforts to speak in plain language so that Margrethe will understand, the playwright does not achieve that necessary poetic clarity with the audience. And literature cannot even soften the drama’s immovable aura.

The "darkness inside the human soul" is restricted to sporadic references to Hamlet’s Elsinore. Yet it’s almost impossible to explore this darkness within the context of such stilted figures delivering a jargon-laden lecture rather than a performance that burns with insights into how humanity’s urge to progress can take an unexpected detour into massive destruction.•

"Copenhagen" runs through February 24 at the Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe. Tickets: $22-$65. Call 312-902-1400.

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