Lantern Theater Company, Philadelphia

By Michael Frayn
Directed by Kittson O’Neill
Through Feb. 18, 2018

A new production of Michael Frayn’s Tony Award winning play “Copenhagen” is on an extended run at the Lantern Theater. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, this play revels in its intellectual density. Past the heady subject matter, its theatrical poetry is vividly brought forth by director Kittson O’Neill.

The production reunites the cast from the Lantern’s 2004 production, reviving what are all together tour de force performances. Charles McMahon (Lantern’s artistic director) plays German physicist Werner Heigleberg, Paul L. Nolan Danish physicist Niels Bohr and Sally Mercer, his wife Margrethe. Characters who can one minute bandy about highly technical jargon about atomic quantum physics at the same time they ponder if they are under surveillance by a fascist government or detonating an atom bomb the next. More relevant than ever, no?

The play opens in 1941 as Margrethe and Niels, Jewish Danes keeping a low profile as they wait out the war in the officially ‘neutral’ Denmark, all the time acutely aware that their country is ‘cooperating’ with the Third Reich. They know they are being watched and know that things could turn worse for Jews in Denmark at any time. Werner is working a physicist for the Nazis and even though he and the couples were formerly close as colleagues and friends they are unnerved when the now famous Heigleberg visits. They are suspicious of his mission in Copenhagen.

Quantum physics and ‘Uncertain principle’ may dominate discussions between Werner and Niels but they also have to ultimately reconcile their own moral relativism for their part in the dire realities of nuclear warfare. Frayn moves back and forth in time in an academic netherworld, rehashing events ala Roshoman. historical and otherwise. They re-enact scenes and dialogue of friendship, scientific theories, and things get personal when grudges bubble to the surface.

Both men not so subtly accuse each other having blood on their hands because nuclear war became a reality. As celebrated as they were as scientists, there is uncertainty whether they were ultimately key players or political pawns by the German and US government, roils underneath their discourse.
Caught in the middle is Margrethe, who may be credited only as Bohr’s secretary, but knows everything about the science and the motivation of the men behind it. Margrethe eventually confronts Heigleberg about how his direct contact could be threatening to them. Heigleberg pushes back against moral outrage over his colluding with the Nazis to advance his career. Heigleberg doesn’t let Bohr escape ethical scrutiny, who tries to downplay his role as part of the Manhattan Project team at Los Alamos post-Hiroshima. Snipping colleagues competing for moral high ground, however vapid or politically expedient, peppers Frayn’s rapid fire dialogue cycles. Emotional intense and intellectually complex, these actors are true to every aspect of this text.

Sally Mercer’s Margrethe, is full of decency and ironic wit. She is the moral compass and metaphysical heart of the play. Charles McMahon strikes as too mannered in the first act, but his masks eventually fall away in a compellingly understated performance. Paul L. Nolan (in a follows up with his fine performance in “The Craftsman” last year) with a pitch perfect performance as Niels Bohr.

Nick Embree’s set design is a nautilus shape plank with geometric slits in the floor and black sculptural background fabric suggesting a void and blue lights peeking through the cracks hinting at the metaphysic maze we are in. The stylized lighting design by Robin Stamey similarly underscores specific themes. Director O’Neill has the actors pace around in this spatial vortex and the effect is hypnotic.

There is a lot of science, a lot of history, a lot of drama in the lives of these characters, the play gets so weighty that it risks implosion under its own thematic weight, especially in the first act, with a lot of fragmented exposition. The dialogue cycles are fast, and in spots, as directed, seemingly too fast- It forces us to stay focused. You cannot casually watch Copenhagen- there are no easy answers on stage or ultimately for us.

Philadelphia ,
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.