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Apocalypse Averted


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:21 pm
The cast of “copenhagen,” from left: christine crawfis, sean marrinan, and william connors. Photo by Marlis Momber.
  • The cast of “copenhagen,” from left: christine crawfis, sean marrinan, and william connors. Photo by Marlis Momber.
When you find that the future of mankind rests in your hands, what to do with the information? Grow giddy with the all-too-mortal thirst for boundless power, or summon the wisdom of the gods in order to cope with the immense responsibility? Such are the questions posed in "Copenhagen", a play which imagines the specifics of an urgent 1941 meeting between two legendary scientists. Like our present day, this was an era when apocalypse—brought on by atomic bomb and not divine judgment —seemed perilously close at hand. An encore reading of this Tony Award winning play by the ever-ambitious Mohonk Mountain Stage Company (MMSC)—which first performed its version of the work in 2004—is unsettlingly well-timed. Iraq, North Korea, and even India remain likely nuclear tinderboxes on the embattled world stage. Performances of Copenhagen are scheduled for January 26 and 27 at New Paltz’s Unison Center.

A work of ferocious intelligence in an era of lowbrow theatrical retreads, "Copenhagen" was written by Michael Frayn and performed on Broadway in 2000 and 2001. Until then, Frayn was best known for his door-slamming farce, "Noises Off." But the playwright astounded fans and confounded critics by crafting this drama of a distinctly non-commercial conceit: The secretive tete-a-tete in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen between atomic physicist Werner Heisenberg of Germany and his mentor, Neils Bohr of Denmark, both Nobel laureates, to discuss quantum mechanics (translation: man’s growing potential to destroy the world). Just a couple of white geniuses sitting around talking.
The summit meeting between the two scientists really is the stuff of legend, said MMSC director Robert Miller, simply because no one was there to record what passed between them. The overarching puzzlement for present-day scholars: What occurred at that meeting which kept Germany from rushing to the world stage with its own atom bomb—when the Nazis clearly had a head start on research? How did we escape an outcome that would have left most of the industrialized world goose-stepping?

Both men later sat down individually to write about their clandestine conversation, Miller said. However, their versions of the episode differed vastly.“Everybody agrees that something important happened at the meeting,” Miller said, “but even the two main people couldn’t agree on what it was.”
Frayn’s dramatic rendering of the fateful meeting shrewdly follows principles of physics: He repeats certain scenes from different points of view, suggesting that there is no final truth when human frailty is an added factor.
MMSC’s production casts the same performers from its 2004 reading. William Connors is Niels Bohr, MMSC co-founder Christine Crawfis is Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, and Sean Marrinan is Werner Heisenberg.

A 2002 TV film version, starring Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea, opened up the action with a shared dinner and postprandial walk. But the claustrophobia of one room on stage seems to better suit the intensity of the subject matter.
“It’s an interesting piece,” Miller said, “for people who like a challenge.”
"Copenhagen" will be performed at Unison in New Paltz on January 26 and 27 at 8pm. Tickets are $11 for Unison members and $15 for nonmembers. (845) 255-1559; www.unisonarts.org.

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