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Two great physicists can't avoid politics in Copenhagen

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There we were, seated in banks against the four matte black walls of Common Ground Theater (where this production of Copenhagen opened last week before its dates this week in Carrboro). In the silence, we stared at the empty black floor space in the center, perhaps glancing briefly up at the black lighting grid and the ceiling above us.

Given the subject of Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning play about a fateful encounter between atomic physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, the stark milieu was enough to suggest we'd somehow stumbled into the flipside of Schrödinger's Cat, one of the most famous thought experiments in quantum mechanics. Except, instead of being the alive and/or dead cat, we were Schrödinger's Audience instead. And since we were, it wasn't our fate but the fate of everything outside our little box that depended on the series of theatrical thought experiments Frayn was in the process of sequencing.

Yes, that could keep a viewer's interest.

And indeed, it is an achievement that the trio of actors here—John Honeycutt, Bonnie Roe and producer Brook North—does keep us engaged throughout the two acts of this speculative historical drama.

Copenhagen hinges on the falling out between these two scientists, which came to a head late one September afternoon in 1941. Earlier, they had been allies: Bohr, a Dane, taught Heisenberg, who was German, and both were architects of what became known as the "Copenhagen interpretation" of quantum physics. But when rising Nazism forced many of Germany's top physicists into exile, Heisenberg chose to remain.

The decision would forever place an ethical question mark by his name. And when he traveled to occupied Denmark in September 1941 to give Bohr an important message, it's an irony of historic—if not nuclear—proportions that the two scientists most closely related to the uncertainty principle could never agree afterward on exactly what had passed between them to cause their rupture. What is known is that Heisenberg risked much to see his former partner, but historians and physicists disagree on Heisenberg's real motives.

Frayn's script deftly explores this intrigue by presenting his visit thrice—but as three different sides of the same secret. After a pensive opening sets the stage, we see a completely convincing staging of what Bohr thought Heisenberg was trying to communicate. Then Frayn turns our orientation 120 degrees to Heisenberg's point of view, and the meaning changes drastically. And, finally, the playwright turn the dial another 120 degrees, to show us how the conversation looked to Bohr's wife.

Under Andy Hayworth's direction, Honeycutt as Bohr and North as Heisenberg cut nimbly enough through the daunting amount of science and history that Frayn has to frontload to set up the tale. It's to their considerable credit that a show so word-bound never drags during its two-hour run.

Still, on opening night I was left with questions involving the performers' range. I wasn't certain that North had fully plumbed the horrors of Heisenberg's navigation through a bombed-out Berlin during World War II. And while Roe captured the European chill of Bohr's wife, Margrethe, the velocity of her outrage in the second act still seemed inhibited. Honeycutt's formal, friendly reading of Bohr was effective, as was his distaste at his guest's social faux pas, but his character's emotional extremities didn't fully convey the terror of his sometimes-incorrect calculations.

Still, Frayn's script is a rewarding workout for audience and actors both. With another week's development, I expect significant less uncertainty in the show audiences see this week in Carrboro.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Double lives."

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