Crashing Bohr

Photo by Ed Krieger/Laguna PlayhouseMichael Frayn's re-imagining of a 1941 meeting between two brilliant physicists on opposite political and moral sides of the war won the 2000 Tony Award for Best New Play. It earned rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and has been roundly hailed as a work thick with big ideas and penetrating insights. Copenhagen is by most accounts a masterpiece—in other words, the kind of play that smarty-pants like you and I should like.

And, set amidst World War II—more specifically, the race between the Allies and the Nazis to construct the first atomic bomb—Copenhagen's central question is indeed fascinating: Why did German scientist Werner Heisenberg, head of Germany's weapon-development program, meet with his mentor, the Danish-born Niels Bohr? To recruit his old friend into the German effort to build an atomic bomb? To spy—to sniff out how the Allies were proceeding in their own bomb-making effort? To eat herring?

No one knows for sure. The historical record is based on subsequent statements by Bohr and Heisenberg, but those statements are contradictory, prompting intense speculation ever since. But victors write history and Heisenberg, a Jew who helped lead Germany's bomb effort, is usually demonized, while Bohr is praised for his compassion and humanity and generally cast as a moral paragon.

Advance word after New York and Los Angeles productions suggested the play was a riveting exploration of the morality and philosophy of science, a dramatization of the most critical decision facing science, if not all civilization: Are we morally obligated to keep our minds in check in order to preserve the world?

But instead of stirring us with provocative answers to this complicated question, this production of Copenhagen put me to sleep. Twice. And I wasn't even tired. And I'm not on heroin anymore. So my totally subjective opinion of the play? It's a frightful bore with the dramatic tension of string cheese. Its characters are as interesting as a physics professor droning on and on about . . . well, physics. And the play itself seemed mostly a tedious conversation between three people about such hot-button topics as matrix calculus, the Copenhagen Interpretation and Schrodinger's Wave Formulation. It was My Dinner With Andre Champagne.

Sleepiness creeping over me before the end of Act One, I bought a copy of Frayn's play in the lobby at intermission ($12), figuring the script would provide further evidence of eggheadedness. But no: the script, it turns out, is brilliant, provocative and poignant. It deals with questions of politics, history, morality and science in crackling fashion. Yes, it's occasionally caught up in its own fascination with neutrons, electrons, plutonium and uranium, but it also speaks directly to the moral dilemma between theory and practice and how the most brilliant scientific minds can create weapons of blind, diabolical power through little more than mathematical musings.

(Frayn's play attempts to rehabilitate Heisenberg's image, intimating that he may have intentionally miscalculated his formulas in order to prevent the Nazis from getting their hands on the bomb. Meanwhile, the saintly Bohr's work with the Allies helped create the bombs that killed 200,000 people.)

So what happened to the production? Laguna's isn't that different from the acclaimed New York and Los Angeles runs. It features the original direction of Michael Blakemore, the same lighting design as the Broadway production, and three actors whose rsums are thoroughly impressive.

So why are the play's onstage rewards so meager compared to those on the page? I don't know. Perhaps I'm a physics dumbass, but I do own Who's Afraid of Schrodinger's Cat, the terrific A-Z on modern science. Maybe I didn't like the talent; William Cain, who plays Bohr, stumbled several times over lines and seemed angry and strident—hardly the man of rectitude whom Robert Oppenheimer called the Father Confessor of the Alamo Project.

Perhaps—while we're on the subject of a play that deals so much with the Uncertainty Principle and essential questions of physical reality—we ought to consider one of Copenhagen's most interesting passages. It comes when Bohr suggests that Einstein's theory of relativity finally put mankind back at the center of the universe, much as we were in the Renaissance. Relativity, Bohr explains, rescued humanity from the "periphery of things," no longer displaced as a "mere adjunct of God's unknowable purposes" or "the laws of classical mechanics that predate us from the beginning of eternity that will survive us to eternity's end, whether we exist or not."

Einstein's theory of relativity, Bohr explains, claimed that measurement, which is the basis of all scientific observation, is not an "impersonal event that occurs with impartial universality. It's a human act, carried out from a specific point of view in time and space." Translation: it's individual perspective that brings order to a universe that exists "only through the understanding lodged inside the human head." There are no universal standards, no correct or incorrect ways of looking at anything.

My dissatisfaction with this production may have been shared by the 20 or so people I saw leaving at intermission, but it's quite possible there were just as many who hung on every word. Thus, relativity.

Back to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. We can focus on the facts of a situation, event or play, or we can surrender ourselves to the feel of it. But focusing on facts, or being in "critic" mode, means we lose perspective of the spirit of the thing; gaining that perspective means we are compromised observers. In essence, there is no way to be both a detached observer and an involved participant. And based on my observation, this production of Copenhagenlacks the vitality and energy needed to entice the audience into becoming actively involved in the experience, which the play as written certainly possesses. In this case, theory is far more exciting than practice.

Copenhagen at the Laguna Playhouse, 404 Moulton Pkwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-0747. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Feb. 3. $42-$49.


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