When Third debuted, Dianne Wiest brought (by most accounts) an ameliorative softness to Laurie (who, echoing Heidi Holland, goes all wistful in the midst of a second-act lecture). At the Huntington, Maureen Anderman plays her more as written: a decent person with a hard, ironic edge. There are also enjoyable performances by Robin Pearson Rose as cancer survivor Nancy, who’s determined to enjoy the third of her life she had expected to be a no-show, and Halley Feiffer, who brings a tart goofiness to Laurie’s questioning daughter. But as Woodson Bull III, Graham Hamilton is too benign to be seen, even by Angela Davis crossed with Hillary Clinton, as an avatar of the Bush administration.
The stakes are higher among the academics of Copenhagen (presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center through February 3). British writer Michael Frayn’s shifting meditation on the mysterious 1941 meeting between Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who went on to work at Los Alamos, and Werner Heisenberg, the Bohr acolyte who headed Hitler’s nuclear-energy program, in the Nazi-occupied city of the title won the London Evening Standard Award for Best Play in 1998 and followed that up with a 2000 Tony. The ART, which does not often catch trickle-down from Broadway, has revived the heady work, set designer David Reynoso crowning it with a Calderesque atom on which electrons blink and circle like cars on a roller coaster. Scott Zigler is at the helm of the production, whose three capable players move in circles or along axes, more slowly than those zooming electrons but in similar patterns, offering an intelligent, flaringly emotional rendering of Frayn’s scientifically scored symphony of memory, perception, misperception, and the uncertainty, here transferred from quantum physics to “a strange new quantum ethics,” for which Heisenberg was famous.
Copenhagen is set in some post-life limbo in which the principals — Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr’s wife, Margrethe — agree to hash and rehash the 1941 meeting in much the same way that the two physicists brainstormed their way to what became known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. The ostensible hope is for an accord as to what took place that would forever alter the men’s relationship — and possibly the outcome of the war and the future of the world. Over and over the question is posed: why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen? Over and over, the characters re-enact the strained encounter, unable to codify what was said on a brief walk that turned Bohr angry and sent Heisenberg skedaddling. Was the German physicist snooping for knowledge of the Allies’ atomic-energy program? Did he come to warn Bohr about the Nazis’ program? Both scientists agree that the visiting German asked the loaded question “Does one as a physicist have the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy?” But was Heisenberg, as he was to claim, delicately seeking an agreement that neither man would contribute his brilliance to a race to build a bomb? Did the two men collide and deflect like subatomic particles, in a bungled moment that just may have preserved the planet?