COPENHAGEN by Michael Frayn, directed by Diana Leblanc, with Michael Ball, Martha Henry and Jim Mezon. Presented by David and Ed Mirvish at the Winter Garden (189 Yonge). Runs to February 22, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $41-$71. 416-872-1212. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
It's hard to imagine the dramatic potential of a play in which three characters discuss theoretical physics on a mostly bare stage. But Michael Frayn finds theatrical gold in the at times dense subject matter of Copenhagen , making it one of the most engrossing and thematically rich journeys of the past few seasons. The play is inspired by a mysterious visit that German scientist Werner Heisenberg ( Jim Mezon ) made to the home of his former teacher, the half-Jewish scientist Neils Bohr ( Michael Ball ), in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1941.
Frayn sets the play in a temporal limbo, where the three now-dead characters - the other one is Bohr's wife Greta ( Martha Henry ) - replay what may or may not have happened during that brief meeting. Was Heisenberg trying to learn what Bohr, and hence the Allies, knew about the atom bomb? Was this simply a vanity visit, one of professional one-upmanship and ambition?
There are no conclusions, only hypotheses, put forth by Frayn with imaginative flourishes that never seem didactic or pretentious. The play is a metaphysical mystery, and what's at stake is nothing less than the course of human history.
Diana Leblanc directs so the scientific skirmishes are as exciting as the psychological wars underlying the trio's dynamics. Images are projected suggestively onto angled screens, and Leblanc moves the actors around with geometric precision, knowing the power of a turned back or a profile.
Ball and Henry are excellent as the questing couple trying to make sense of history - both political and personal. The gruff Bohr comes alive when talking about physics, while the perceptive Greta is attuned to the emotional part of the equation.
But it's Mezon's performance that gets to you, maybe because Frayn's given him the best scenes, including one where he changes his life during a string trio and two wrenching monologues set in war-torn Germany. Mezon captures Heisenberg's cocky arrogance and crippling fear all too well. It's a superb performance in an equally fine play.