CAMBRIDGE - Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" takes place in a curious limbo - beyond life and death for its three characters, but also somehow outside the historical moment that is its purported subject. The central event is a September 1941 meeting in Copenhagen of German physicist Werner Heisenberg with his Danish mentor, Niels Bohr, and Bohr's wife, Margrethe. But for all the specificity of time, place, and participants, neither the characters nor we who watch them can ever quite know where we are.
That's both the beauty and the challenge of this sparklingly intelligent work, which enacts multiple and mutually exclusive scenarios of the meeting (all we know is that they discussed atomic weapons, and that the talk ended their friendship): How are we to understand a play that refuses to be fully understood? It's the kind of dramatic paradox that tantalizes both audiences and theater companies. So it's no wonder that "Copenhagen," since winning the 2000 Tony Award for best play, has been frequently staged both here and elsewhere.
It's a little more surprising that the American Repertory Theatre would choose to present it now. Not only have local audiences had several chances to see it, but also, for all its complexity, it's not the kind of play that calls for directorial interventions and manipulations of the sort the ART specializes in. As it turns out, however, "Copenhagen" elicits fine work from some ART regulars, and this production shows both the play and the company in a clear, appealing light.
"Copenhagen" has provoked great controversy over its historical accuracy, especially with regard to Heisenberg's relationship with the Nazis. Feelings run high because it deals with profoundly troubling ethical questions and events arising out of the development of nuclear weapons during World War II, when Heisenberg was carrying on atomic energy research under the Third Reich, while Bohr, who eventually escaped occupied Denmark, helped the United States build a bomb of its own. But director Scott Zigler's spare production helps to turn our focus from the possible discrepancies between Frayn's play and the facts to the broader but deeper concerns that are his true subject: What can we know? What should we do? How are we to live?
As others have pointed out, we don't have to accept Shakespeare's demonization of Richard III to appreciate "Richard III." From this distance, we can separate the play's character from the historical figure. In time, I think, Frayn's "Heisenberg" and "Bohr" will become similarly detached from their counterparts in reality; our questions about whether Heisenberg helped or sabotaged the Nazi war effort will remain in the sphere of history, while our reading of the character "Heisenberg" will enrich our consideration of drama, ethics, and the largest questions of human nature.
Even as I make this argument, I find myself wondering whether I agree with it. Facts matter, after all, and it has become pretty clear that Frayn, like Shakespeare, gets some facts wrong. That matters, too, especially if it gives any aid and comfort to those who attempt to minimize the evil of colluding with Nazis. Ultimately, though, I think my unease and perplexity is part of what Frayn is trying to provoke. He wants us to know that stories get things wrong, that any attempt to see "what happened" is colored by the storyteller's shaping of the story and then further refracted by our own interests, biases, and blind spots.
In staging his own interpretation of Frayn's interpretation, Zigler is particularly aided by a rich, complicated, and deeply moving performance by Karen MacDonald as Margrethe Bohr. Without Margrethe's presence onstage, the theoretical physics and political arguments of the two men could move too far into abstraction or crude power struggles; with her observing and commenting on them, especially in MacDonald's wry and eloquent voice, we get a fuller and more engaging picture of two brilliant thinkers whose thinking is more influenced by feeling than they can ever know.
The men - Will LeBow as Niels Bohr and John Kuntz, making his ART debut, as Heisenberg - are harder to read. That's partly from the text, but LeBow, while often affecting, sometimes seems even more detached, more opaque than Frayn means him to be. Kuntz, with a carefully composed expression and a headlong speed of delivery, is more successful at the tricky task of creating an enigmatic mask that nevertheless affords glimpses of the complicated psyche behind it.
Zigler keeps all three moving around the nearly bare stage, in an understated evocation of the movement of subatomic particles. Combined with David Remedios's eerie, appropriate sound cues - ticks and booms and a Bach fugue - the deceptively simple set, designed by David Reynoso with lighting by Kenneth Helvig, enriches this metaphor without overinflating it.
Mirrors at the back refract and distort the three characters, who walk in and out of patches of light as they range from postmortem narrative to repeated reenactment and back again. Meanwhile, above their heads and ours, three giant translucent loops, in the familiar configuration that says "atom," pulse regularly but unpredictably with flashes of light. Each particle follows its own path, crossing or avoiding or affecting the paths of others, in a pattern more intricate and more variously influenced than an observer can grasp.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.