Seattle Center, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 206-443-2222, $15-$46 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sun.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. ends Oct. 26
MICHAEL FRAYN'S Copenhagen exists at the opposite emotional pole from his smash farce Noises Off, a clockwork laugh machine (catch it at Ashland through Nov. 6; it's worth the trip). Yet Copenhagen has an identical structure: a drama enacted three times, to clarify the characters' multiple misunderstandings.
Noises Off is full of sound and flurry, signifying nothing. But the drama in Copenhagen, quiet and cerebral, concerns the fate of the Earth and the substance of the soul. The central event is the mysterious, real-life 1941 visit of Werner Heisenberg (Hitler's top atomic physicist) with his Danish mentor and father figure, Niels Bohr (who, after the meeting, went to Los Alamos to help create the Nagasaki bomb).
No one knows why Heisenberg risked execution to talk to Bohr in his Gestapo-bugged Copenhagen home. Nobody can agree precisely what they said on their fateful walk, nor why they quarreled. Did Heisenberg want to save Bohr by convincing him to collaborate? To enlist Denmark's cyclotron in Hitler's war effort? Or to get Bohr's help in preventing any A-bomb at all on either side? Heisenberg claimed he wasn't spying for Hitler. The play keeps posing the question: Was Heisenberg evil or not? His subtle self-defense makes you re- examine your first simple impulse. In fact, it makes you wonder, can anybody know anyone else's true motives—or his own? Are we to judge people by their effects or their intentions? Who's worse—Heisenberg, who killed no one, or Bohr, who killed 100,000 to save millions?
Frayn does an excellent job of making physics concepts comprehensible and putting them to dramatic use. This is not the usual lazy invocation of the famous Uncertainty Principle. He finds marvelous parallels between the ambiguous behavior of light, which can be interpreted both as a wave and a particle, and competing historical narratives. His dueling egoists explain the magical allure of atom science: "It's what the alchemists were trying to do, turn one element into another." Better than anything I've seen since Arcadia (infinitely better than the idea-free soap opera Proof), Copenhagen alchemizes science into personal drama.
And it's not abstract. Considering the prospect of an A-bomb over Germany, Heisenberg palpably summons a scene of burning puddles and nonpolitical victims. (Frayn probably gives Heisenberg more moral credit than he's due, but who cares, it makes a more vivid debate.) The evening's high points are rapturous or tormented soliloquies delivered by Laurence Ballard as Heisenberg. The man acts with his whole body. He stands stiffly in a boxy suit, as if he were sketched on graph paper. His hands are eloquent, at times magniloquent—the fingers fidget as he prepares to knock on Bohr's door, quiver toward his chest to indicate grief, flutter downward to minimize his offense in having heckled Bohr (played by Raye Birk) at a lecture. "Hands that had actually built the bomb wouldn't touch mine," says Heisenberg, and Ballard makes his hands seem a wounded thing. The gestures are telling, and his voice makes every note sing. Ballard's performance is so brilliant, you practically need to wear shades to witness it.
Most of the good lines go to Heisenberg, but the two men were so close they finished each others' sentences, in life and in the play. So do married couples. Much of the exposition involves Heisenberg and the Bohrs tossing lines back and forth, as smoothly as in a musical composition, but Ballard, Birk, and Marianne Owen (as Margrethe Bohr) are unequal players. Birk lacks passion, and Owen hesitates and fluffs lines right and left. Ordinarily, a fluff is no big deal, but it is when it starts to deprive your intentional pauses of their meaning. Margrethe Bohr is supposed to be a human fumarole when faced with the Nazi rival for her husband's affections; Owen seems merely steamed. She blows her role, yet somehow leaves the play largely intact—partly because hers is the most wispily imagined character.
The action is nimbly staged by director Richard E.T. White on an elegantly austere set by Kent Dorsey. First, we see the actors through a scrim of scribbled equations involving the phrase "Force equals." Then the scene becomes a living room, realistic, but encircled by a rising ramp, which permits the men to simulate a walk in the woods and the motions of colliding particles giving rise to cosmic consequences. Above the cozy room looms a huge black circle resembling a target against the back wall—it's at an angle, reminding me of the world map in the War Room of Dr. Strangelove. It's also mirrored, so you can glimpse in its dark surface the reflected pattern of the floor, adorned with what look like runic inscriptions anticipating Einstein. It's simple, but as the physicists say, "It works." Despite that one glitchy performance, so does this production.