Acting is simple, Spencer Tracy is supposed to have told a young colleague: learn your lines and don’t trip over the furniture. In Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, now on at the Luna Stage, we are tempted to add: and don’t bump into your fellow actors.
Director James Glossman has his actors rocketing around the stage like electrons orbiting the nucleus of an atom. The dialogue is never impenetrable, but it’s dense and rich as heavy water.
It’s 1941 in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Werner Heisenberg, he of the uncertainty principle, the greatest physicist not to have been driven out of Germany, has come to pay a visit on the even greater Niels Bohr, his former teacher and mentor.
The reasons for this visit are shrouded in mystery to this day. Was Heisenberg seeking help in building an atomic bomb? Did he want information on whether the Allies were building one? Did he want absolution from a father figure?
These are the themes Frayn deals with in a play that ranges over the personal, the political and the scientific. He looks fondly over the early decades of the 20th century, when Bohr and a brilliant band of international physicists (“We called you the Pope,” Heisenberg muses) reshaped our understanding of the way the physical world works. Those were the innocent days, before physics became the world’s greatest agent of death.
It sounds like heavy going, but it isn’t. Frayn also wrote the screamingly funny farce Noises Off. This script is peppered with laugh lines and they are adroitly handled by this cast.
Paul Murphy, best known around here as a veteran member of the Lunatic Fringe improv troupe, is an engaging and avuncular Bohr. Ian Gould may not be quite rigidly Teutonic enough for our taste, but he is wonderfully petulant, brilliant and defensive as Heisenberg.
Linda Setzer as Bohr’s wife Margrethe deserves special praise. She is our agent on stage, keeping the conversation comprehensible. And Setzer gives it just enough gravity to keep this atom from flying apart.
Like a good scientist, Frayn’s Bohr goes over the same ground several times, to see if the experiment results are replicable and to view it from different angles. Good advice. You might want to see this one twice.
The show runs through May 20. Tickets are $25. For more info click here.
Photo by Amanda Faison.