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Up to Snuff?

Circuit's Copenhagen plays an atomic blame game.



Every theater is a laboratory, every play an experiment -- a methodical attempt to create the precise conditions where thought and action fuse and time becomes malleable; to create new worlds built in and of imaginary space. Michael Frayn's LONG, math-centric drama Copenhagen begs for experimentation. Its formal conceit: turn traditional dramatic structures into scientific proofs, each aimed at determining the uncertain mechanics of a private meeting between Niels Bohr, the Jewish father of quantum mechanics, and Werner Heisenberg, Bohr's former pupil and the chief scientist in charge of creating Hitler's atomic-weapons program. The play's content, being entirely hypothetical, is by turns chaotic, frustrating, contradictory, and terribly, terribly moral. At Circuit Playhouse, its form is sluggish, uncertain, occasionally honest but generally overwrought. It is excessively talky and rather low on action. The verdict: "Oh, my aching butt!" They can build an atomic bomb, but they can't make a theater seat that cushions the blow.

Copenhagen is not good. That makes no sense at all, because it should be good. It should be great, in fact. The script is talky but still fantastic. The play's three actors -- Jonathon Lamer, Dave Landis, and Christina Wellford Scott -- are known, highly valued commodities. They aren't exactly strangers to difficult material, and, generally speaking, these guys tend to get better when they are presented with a bit of a challenge. Copenhagen could have been a cakewalk. For these three, it should have been a cakewalk. But it wasn't a cakewalk. It looked like hard, hard labor. Vocally, the acting often resembled the kind of breathless dialogue you hear in commercials for cosmetics. The movement was wooden, uncertain, and, worst of all, unmotivated. It felt choreographed. Combatants got chest-to-chest and screamed with their faces very close together. Either that, or they turned their backs and crossed their legs in perfect sync, like they were ending a chorus of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."

Even when dealing with cold mathematical equations, Frayn's dialogue is designed to create heat on stage. But there is no heat in this production, only posing and self-indulgent emoting. And then some more posing. And then a little more emoting. And so it all goes. The life of the play lives only in the actors' heads, not in their hearts, or any other part of their bodies for that matter.

When Copenhagen was first released it garnered as much criticism as it did praise. It was reviled for being so talky and so full of math. It also took a number of hits for playing fast and loose with known historical facts. But in spite of the criticism, it racked up award after award, taking audiences by storm everywhere it opened. Why, you might ask? Because it is a classic story of a good man confronting his dark side and a not-so-good man struggling to find redemption. It is a play built on ideological conflict and personal ambition. Like all classic tragedies, it has more than its share of hubris. All the math and physics is almost beside the point.

Christina Wellford Scott, known for stealing nearly every show she participates in, seems almost extraneous in her role as Bohr's wife Margrethe. Jonathon Lamer (Heisenberg), looking for all the world like Dick Tracy minus the cool gizmos, puffs anachronistically on Marlboro Light 100's and overacts whenever he gets a chance. Dave Landis (Bohr) comes the closest of the three to finding the humanity and conflict in his character. He is the most-surefooted actor here, and, generally speaking, he carries the show, though the burden is way too much for one man to bear.

As the play grinds to a close, we find Bohr suffering the pangs of guilt. Because of the small but necessary part he played in the Manhattan Project, he has the blood of everyone who died in the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on his hands. Heisenberg, on the other hand, failed in his efforts to produce a bomb for Hitler, so he professes a clean conscience. Now, what's wrong with this picture? If you said, "Heisenberg worked for Hitler, so he's implicated by association in the death of at least 6 million Jews," you are correct. If Frayn's little experiment with the Uncertainty Principle had ever gained any momentum, this curious paradox might have had some resonance. Instead, it just seems like a terrible mistake in Mr. Frayn's logic.

Through July 13th.

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