Not-Right Triangles


At least according to the Tom Lehrer song about him, Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky, inventor of non-Euclidean geometry, sold his theorems to MGM, which turned them into a film called The Eternal Triangle. Lucky for Arthur Miller and Michael Frayn he isn’t around to claim a chunk of their current royalties. Both Frayn’s Copenhagen and Miller’s Ride Down Mt. Morgan are triangular plays, in which three characters are locked together by an emotionally fraught situation. Miller’s script deals with marriage and our need to derive pleasure from life, Frayn’s with quantum mechanics and the looming possibility of life’s extinction. But the real subject of both is the extent of the deceit three people can practice on each other. As Lobachevsky might have summed it up, two people of one gender plus one person of the other equals dishonesty.

Frayn has short-circuited the evasive process for us by moving his triangle, which is equilateral and unerotic, past all deceit. When we meet the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and his German prize pupil Werner Heisenberg, they’re already dead. Assembled in a space that, in Michael Blakemore’s production, suggests both a university lecture hall and a sort of celestial night court, with audience members ranged above them, these three cerebral people chase through their minds, over and over, the puzzling evening, in 1941, when Heisenberg inexplicably dropped in on the Bohrs in Copenhagen. Heisenberg, by then in charge of the Nazis’ research program in nuclear fission and its possible application to new weapons, was already suspected by the gestapo of lacking enthusiasm for Hitler. The Bohrs, assimilated Jews and loyal Danes, were equally under surveillance in Nazi-occupied Denmark; he was allegedly in touch with emigré scientists doing work parallel to Heisenberg’s in England and America. As a Jew, of course, Bohr himself had no access to lab equipment with the Nazis in power. His cyclotron sat unused; at least one theory alleges that Heisenberg came asking to borrow it.

Because the two men had been in on the ground floor of modern theoretical physics, the range of topics they might have discussed within their field is impossibly vast. In addition, their familial ties were close: The Bohrs, who had lost their eldest son in a tragic boating accident, took a parental interest in favored pupils. Flashy, quick-thinking Heisenberg was a special source of pride to Bohr— presumably causing some pain to Margrethe. In letting his characters’ ghosts speculate on the substance of that one evening’s meeting, and the motives behind it, Frayn runs through all of this material, and more: Bohr’s woolly but painstakingly slow thought process versus Heisenberg’s dangerous rush to judgment; Bohr’s concern for the human consequences of his theories, in contrast to Heisenberg’s passion for the mathematically abstract. Wittily, Frayn finds ways to make the people illustrate their own theories: behaving like observed or unobserved particles, viewed as points and then as diffracted waves, embodying Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle alternately with Bohr’s theory of Complementarity. Tossing about its alternative hypotheses, Copenhagen has the odd, brainily diverting quality of a salad made of cut-up strips of conflicting doctoral dissertations—hard to swallow but great fun to toy with on the plate.

What’s hardest to swallow, oddly enough, isn’t the physics, which Frayn sets out lucidly and Blakemore’s staging often illustrates charmingly. It’s the moral material at the core. Heisenberg’s postwar defense of his Nazi research activities was that he had, in effect, deliberately dragged his feet, withholding vital data so that Hitler would never get the bomb. His visit to Bohr, by this version, was an effort to ensure that his colleagues on the Allied side would do the same thing. The notion clearly fascinates Frayn, but as mouthed by the Heisenberg he’s written, comes off as just another postwar German evasion of responsibility. (It also gives the play an awkward resemblance to a much inferior work, Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides, in which similar excuses are made, more insistently, for an equally shifty figure in a different field, the perfervid conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler.)

Frayn, to his credit, never lets the special pleading pass unchallenged, but he goes through some peculiar twists of logic to make it pass at all. Heisenberg’s non-production of an atomic bomb is contrasted not only with his former colleagues’ successful production of one, but with Bohr’s failure to dive in and rescue his son when the boat capsized, as if the choice made in a single moment of crisis were analogous to that made by electing to live, day after day, as one of the elite in a steadily worsening totalitarian regime. We get a full description of Heisenberg’s horror at the news of Hiroshima—plus Margrethe’s tart question about whether he’s horrified because it was done, or because he didn’t do it—but we hear nothing of his reaction to the death camps. Nor of how it felt, in the regime’s early years, to sit cozily in his academic office while his Jewish colleagues were turned out of theirs. And even in this time of mass amnesia, it’s curious to see a play by an Englishman in which a German scientist bemoans the wreckage of his beloved country by bombardment. Didn’t London have something called the Blitz? Yes, I know there were innocent civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima too; it just seems odd to put all the sympathy votes on the instigating side.

As far as that goes, Frayn’s emphasis on the terror of nuclear destruction itself seems oddly out of date, valid as it is for the characters. Chances of nuclear war have been considerably reduced; what’s liable to destroy us all now are peaceful places like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Frayn says nothing about this; for him “nuclear” equals “bomb,” much as Margrethe, the fulcrum of his mechanism, equals “spouse.” Inventive, wide-ranging, compassionate, his script also has a hemmed-in quality that seems to stem less from the laws of the dramaturgic universe than from the author’s reluctance to delve. A nuclear explosion is represented onstage at one point, but this quasi-nuclear family radiates little emotional connection to our own lives. Blakemore’s cast is generous at filling in the blanks, but even actors as good as Philip Bosco and Blair Brown can make the Bohrs no more than a pair of complementary particles. It’s left to Michael Cumpsty’s Heisenberg to provide the emotional meltdown. Luckily, he’s apt for the task; an actor whose height, strong features, and big voice have often allowed him to speedboat across the surface of his roles, Cumpsty has rarely, since La Bête, found a character’s life as richly and powerfully as he does here. In Cumpsty’s performance, you see the man fully, both as rational point and emotional wave.

The rational points have been greatly enhanced in The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, last year’s isosceles triangle, now moved north from the Public Theater. Downtown, the base of the triangle—its hero, Lyman Felt (Patrick Stewart)—had all the justifications and most of the good lines. Miller’s thorough and skillful rewriting has put the shape back in balance by giving better-focused responses to the two women Lyman’s married, by each of whom he has a child. David Esbjornson’s production, expanding as if with relief onto the larger stage, has also helped matters with some judicious recasting, notably the arrival of Katy Selverstone, pert, precise, and unforcedly appealing as the second wife. She’s no wife at all, of course, since Lyman has never divorced his first wife (still the redoubtable Francis Conroy).

The joy of this rebalancing act is that it takes the onus of Lyman’s narcissistic selfishness off the playwright: Instead of indulging one idea, he’s testing it against another, turning the drama from an old man’s erotic fantasy into a debate about pleasure and responsibility. The more Lyman goes on about experiencing passion and seizing the moment in a constantly changing world, the more angrily outspoken the women get, showing us the damage pleasure leaves behind when you dive into it without consideration for others. Equally important and necessary, the two ideas are irreconcilable; that’s drama. At the end, Lyman, who’s had a remarkable life, is still relishing the preposterous glory of the world, but he’s turned his children, the grown daughter we see and the eight-year-old son we hear about, into neurotic, damaged messes. And there’s surely something wrong with your pleasure if it leaves the world that much worse than you found it.

Everything in this equation depends on our liking Lyman too much to spot him as a phony right off, and Stewart, who handled the role with delightful flair Off-Broadway, has deepened his work for the new version. An actor whose natural instinct is apparently to give every role a downward pull—he was the gloomiest Prospero ever—he’s let that quality seep into his sly, sunshiny Lyman. The bright smiles hover on his face for an instant before their corners drop down; the voice’s cheery pitch seems to have somber cello underscoring. The disquieting effect is just right: Part of Lyman knows he shouldn’t be this happy, and part of us doesn’t want him to be, but we can’t help enjoying the schmuck’s self-satisfaction anyway. Unlike Loman, Lyman is well liked. Conroy’s splendid performance has reshaped itself for the larger space without losing any of its Downtown vibrancy.