- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

Do you like cerebral mind-game exercises? During the recent Winter Olympics, were you more interested in the ice skater's technical merit than artistry?

If so, Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" will appeal to your intellect. It is an impeccable and handsome play about a shadowy 1941 meeting between Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Len Cariou) and his German counterpart, Werner Heisenberg (Hank Stratton).

Why did Heisenberg take such a risky journey to Nazi-occupied Copenhagen to see his old mentor and friend, as well as Bohr's wife, Margrethe (Mariette Hartley)? Did they discuss the race to make the atomic bomb?

That question is not definitely answered. Instead, Mr. Frayn immerses us in the endless possibilities, revising, revisiting and rewriting the night's events much in the way a scientist prepares a paper.

With the constant repetition and variation, the three characters appear to be caught in some sort of purgatory. The set a towering expanse of blond wood certainly suggests a courtroom or an operating theater. Two rows of audience members are seated in semicircle tiers and look down at the actors.

The three perform on a bare stage, with three plain chairs as the only scenery.

It has been said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same result is the definition of insanity, and Mr. Frayn (as does the movie "A Beautiful Mind") makes the connection between physics and madness. Does going over the same tense night repeatedly really bring the characters closer to the heart of the matter? Or are the variations a scientific equation set into motion?

The madness theme is explored in many ways. Bohr, who is methodical and thoughtful, constantly chides Heisenberg for getting all ensnarled in the mathematics and not realizing that the purpose of physics is to explain natural phenomenon, to sit inside the mind of God. Heisenberg, all brilliant bluster and aggression, believes the beauty lies in the purity of mathematics and equations. You wonder if the months spent in a cave with his prototype nuclear reactor was in the interest of science or whether he was a madman scribbling numbers in the dark.

Then again, if Bohr is so high-minded, why did he go to Los Alamos to help Robert Oppenheimer with the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima?

Which man is more noble Bohr, who acted on his discovery, or Heisenberg, who remained immersed in the hypothetical?

If you believe that the questions are more important than the answers and that life lies in possibility and uncertainty, "Copenhagen" will no doubt be a riveting experience. It takes you out of petty concerns and into the bigger issues, beyond who has the bomb and who hasn't and into the morality of science abetting weapons of mass destruction.

These are serious questions, and "Copenhagen" is nothing if not serious. It is often like a two-hour physics lecture, and Mr. Frayn clearly became infatuated with his research and wanted to show it off to the public. Unlike Tom Stoppard, who, in "The Invention of Love" took classical love poetry as a jumping-off point for a deeply moving meditation on the human heart, "Copenhagen" never leaves the realm of the mind.

The actors seem to reflect this stoic stance, giving such marvelously controlled performances the one exception being Mr. Stratton, who is emoting all over the place that they often seem like chess pieces moving across the board. Miss Hartley rises above the constraints of the script to give a subtly moving, watchful performance.

Theater, in my view, is a physical act. It should cause reactions in both the body and mind. "Copenhagen" resembles some of the skating seen in the 2002 Olympics flawless, but stiff.


**1/2WHAT: "Copenhagen"

WHERE: Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, except March 24; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and March 21. Through March 24

TICKETS: $20 to $68

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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