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“Copenhagen” Enthralls at Luna Stage

Three Character Play Delves the Darkness in the Human Soul

A superb revival of the 2000 Tony Award-winning three-character drama “Copenhagen” by playwright Michael Frayn opened this past weekend at Luna Stage Theater Company in West Orange, running Thursdays to Sundays through May 20.

Brilliantly acted, staged and directed, this production goes to the heart of matter—atomic physics—and the heart of darkness—the deployment of the atomic bomb, Nazi brutality, racism, chauvinism, deception and self deception.

“Copenhagen” imagines a series of impassioned dialogues among the ghosts of two 20th century theoretical giants, the Danish Niels Bohr, a father of modern physics, and 1932 Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg, the German author of the revolutionary Heisenberg Principle. Their ghosts are joined by that of Bohr’s insightful and practical wife Margrethe.

Was Heisenberg sounding out Bohr about the Allies and the development of a bomb?  Was he trying to enlist Bohr’s help in promoting Danish-German cooperation, which was sure to anger Bohr, a loyal Dane who despised Hitlerism? 

This Luna Stage production makes you want to know.  

South Orange-based Linda Setzer embodies the wry, insightful Margrethe. When towards the play’s end she admonishes Heisenberg for his treatment of “this good man,” Setzer imbues a simple line with the understanding of a long marriage. Setzer’s Margrethe is a key figure, delivering the play’s conjoined themes: science and politics as well as friendship are personal. Human self blindness makes everything unknowable.

“She was Bohr’s anchor,” said South Orange-based actress Setzer, a Luna Stage veteran who has acted for Glossman before. Since its founding, Glossman has a strong history with Luna, as both director and in his acclaimed performance as Thomas Alva Edison in Luna’s 2011 “The Dangers of Electric Lighting."

In a subtle performance, Montclair-based actor Paul Murphy, who teaches improvisation at Luna, captures Bohr’s humanism and essential integrity. As to Heisenberg, the historic figure is a cipher.

In "Copenhagen," Heisenberg is ego and confusion--a lost child reeling from World War One memories and given to self-dramatizing speeches and declarations. The NYC-based actor Ian Gould— new to Luna Stage—gives a riveting performance.

As Heisenberg, he is one-part brilliant mathematician, one-part prodigal son, and one-part clumsy manipulator. Late in the play, Murphy delivers a child’s temper tantrum over advance mathematics that has the audience laughing—and really caring.  

As the actors circle one another, often in choreographed movements that echoe the movement of subatomic particles, the play ignites a range of emotions—“There’s laughter and tears,” said director Glossman during a well-attended “Talkback” after the Sunday, April 29 matinee.

During the talkback discussion, the Montclair-based Glossman repeated his frequent observation that the key to good directing is casting the best actors. He has here.

Some history in the time of the play:

In the dark days of September 1941, most of Europe was under Axis control, Hitler’s forces were marching on Moscow, and the United States was maintaining official neutrality. Only an embattled Britain was tenuously keeping alive the fight against fascism. 

In the mid 1920s, Heisenberg was among the brilliant young physicists who came to Copenhagen to work under Bohr. Soon, he was the heir apparent, in many ways supplanting, as Margrethe ruefully points out, hers and Bohr’s sons. (Margrethe is no stranger to their work; she typed all the many revisions of Bohr’s scientific papers and was Bohr's sounding board for the clarity of his work to the larger public.)

In late September 1941, Heisenberg traveled to German-occupied Denmark to see Bohr. (Bohr was part Jewish, narrowly escaped deportation to Germany and made it to America in 1943 to work on the atomic bomb.)

Or, as he would claim for the last 30 years of his life, was Heisenberg trying to both restore Germany to its “rightful place right in the heart” of theoretical physics and discourage the development of a German atomic weaponry program?

No one knows what was said. What is known is that Bohr truncated the meeting and never spoke to Heisenberg again.

Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets are $35 at the Luna Stage website or call (973) 395-5551. The theater is handicapped accessible. Call for information on hearing devices.

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