In 1941, physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg met privately in the city of Copenhagen and discussed the issue of nuclear weapons. The exact nature and results of that conversation have remained a debate among scholars in the decades since, with some believing that had the discussion gone differently, it might have affected the outcome of World War II.
Michael Frayn’s 1998 “Copenhagen” dramatizes this conversation, exploring what might have been said (and left out) and how it impacted both men. A new production at Austin Playhouse, running through April 28, is a showcase of how a well-crafted play of ideas with a rock-solid cast can still create a captivating story without any of the bells and whistles of stagecraft.
“Copenhagen,” in fact, could be as successful as a radio play as it has been on the stage. It revolves around the spirits of Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, discussing the conversation and its reverberations, recreating it in several “drafts” so as to figure out the meaning of what occurred. The entirety of the action takes place in a circular platform on the stage, with no scenery save for three chairs and the haunting image of an atom scrawled upon the floor.
The maddening vagueness of the location reflects the characters’ frustrations at their inability to fully communicate and come to the truth of what happened. Their conversation ends up showing the influence of politics on science and vice versa, as well as the role that personal relationships play amid both. Always underneath the dialogue, though, is the air of uncertainty, a reflection of Heisenberg’s most famous scientific tenant and a dramatic theme that calls into question the functioning of memory and the ability to ever fully express oneself to others.
In a play of which the central tenant is uncertainty, the three performers at the heart of “Copenhagen” bring an amazing degree of specificity to acting choices that creates a strong emotional through line. It serves as the narrative tether to the audience. Director Don Toner and his cast — David Stahl as Heisenberg, Ev Lunning Jr. as Niels Bohr and Babs George as Margrethe Bohr — masterfully exploit the text’s slow burn to dramatic tension, crafting nuance and emotion out of gobs of dialogue about specific scientific and geopolitical debates. Though all three are superb, Stahl in particular excels at painting a picture of Heisenberg’s deep emotional pain, as it ties into his conversations and relationship with the Bohrs.
“Copenhagen” is a stolid, old-fashioned play of ideas, one with great depth that takes time to build. It’s not without its flaws (one could easily see this as a stronger work if it were tightened up from two acts into one), but as produced by Austin Playhouse, it is a first-rate drama that poses intriguing questions that will leave audience members uncertain for a long time to come.