Going nuclear, in ‘Copenhagen’ (Lantern Theater Company)

Two atomic scientists — one from Germany and the other from occupied Denmark — meet quietly during World War II. What about?

Charles McMahon (foreground),Sally Mercer and Paul L. Nolan in Lantern Theater Company's production of

Charles McMahon (foreground),Sally Mercer and Paul L. Nolan in Lantern Theater Company's production of "Copenhagen." (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Urgent is not a word I associate with Michael Frayn’s play “Copenhagen,” about a meeting of two nuclear scientists during World War II. But director Kittson O’Neill’s production of “Copenhagen” is just that — and its urgent delivery makes it work in a way I’d never imagined.

Frayn created “Copenhagen” with just a few facts at hand about the mysterious meeting. Two great scientists — one living nervously in Demark among German occupiers, the other working for them in Germany — met in Copenhagen as the Germans stormed through Europe in 1941. What they said to each other, no one knows.

I’ve always believed “Copenhagen” won the best-play Tony Award in spite of its faults. Its characters are ghosts, trying to relive their meeting after they are dead, and their repetitive arguments spin around the stage like electrons around an atom. Two hours and 40 indulgent minutes after the play begins (including an intermission), it lands in a preachy puddle, with questionable payoff.

Its second half is more or less a lesson — told through arguments by the two men — about nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, uncertainty theory, and other principles the two scientists either discovered or helped to prove.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

But at Lantern Theater, what a lesson it is! In one corner, we have the scientist Werner Heisenberg (Nobel Prize for physics, 1932), living in his German homeland and working for the Nazis on nuclear fission.  In the other corner stands Niels Bohr (Nobel Prize for physics, 1922) who mentored Heisenberg and regarded him as a son. In the middle of it all is Bohr’s wife, Margrethe Nørlund Bohr, his typist, editor, and guiding spirit. In a play with no real documentation of an apparently eventful meeting, she is as close as we come to a truth-teller.

In her staging at Lantern, O’Neill takes the two scientists out of their corners and moves them constantly around the ring — here a circular wooden depiction of what may be an atomic particle, by set designer Nick Embree. They spar with ideas, not gloved fists, as they examine their motives and careers over and over, each time confronting one another with real and perceived truths about both science and themselves.

I never thought I’d be able to say this about “Copenhagen,” which seems leaden to me, but watching this version is thrilling. Like any production with great insight, Lantern’s makes me rethink the play. (Audiences are apparently gripped by it, too. Demand at the box office has been great enough that “Copenhagen” is getting a week’s extension.)

You can’t conjure the sort of urgency the production emanates without three actors who know just how to create it. Cheers to Lantern’s artistic director, Charles McMahon, for providing a Heisenberg who is at once proud and unsure of his role with the Nazis; to the veteran actor Paul L. Nolan, for a Niels Bohr who tries mightily to balance the idea of nuclear science with the political realities and devastation it can create; and to Sally Mercer, who plays Mrs. Bohr with perfect measures of charm and candor. And I’d be remiss not to congratulate Meghan Winch, Lantern’s dramaturg, who provides an excellent primer to quantum physics in the program notes. You’ll want to read it after the show’s over to learn more about what you’ve been hearing.

“Copenhagen,” produced by Lantern Theater Company, is extended through Feb. 18 at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow streets, between Market and Chestnut. 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal