Photo by Joan Marcus

Poor, possibly misunderstood Werner Heisenberg — the German nuclear physicist and the pivot of Michael Frayn’s riveting 1998 three-character play Copenhagen, a series of dramatic equations with poetical resonances. In 1941, Heisenberg (Hank Stratton), then head of Germany’s weapons-development program — his movements watched and his conversations bugged by the Nazis — traveled across occupied Denmark to visit his former mentor, Niels Bohr (Len Cariou), and Bohr’s wife, Margrethe (Mariette Hartley), Jews exiled from Germany. What could Heisenberg have been thinking?

Frayn poses this question (before Frayn, it had already been the object of endless speculation) in several enactments of that fateful meeting in which the two men took a brief walk together. Each enactment is prodigiously researched and provides Heisenberg with alternative motives, like a series of variations on a theme.

So what really happened on that afternoon in 1941 Copenhagen? Years later, Bohr and Heisenberg gave contrary reports of what was said during their hike (a scene that Frayn keeps offstage), while historians came more and more to demonize Heisenberg and canonize Bohr as a paragon of virtue. As Frayn takes this now commonly held conclusion and spins it beyond recognition, that conclusion’s padding flies in small pieces all over the stage. After all, as the play points out, Heisenberg died without a single human death by nuclear fission on his conscience. Bohr, on the other hand, later served as a kind of imperial counselor to Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer at the University of Chicago’s A-bomb project, and is therefore implicated, tangentially at least, in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents.

On the stage, Heisenberg seems at first to be warning the Bohrs of troubles to come, and hinting at ways to protect them. But wait a minute — perhaps he’s just being cagey and has shown up to seek help in obtaining a cyclotron for the German war effort. Again and again, time is spun back and the moment replayed, revealing the possibility that Heisenberg might be about to tell some German secrets . . . or perhaps he’s merely there to show off for his old teacher; next time ’round, he might be seeking absolution; and, in another replay, he may have been instrumental in saving the lives of these and other Jews.

The reasons behind history’s discounting of Heisenberg’s presumed scruples date back to 1937, when he was denied a major teaching post, despite his rising reputation as a scientist. For it was known by the then politically ascending Nazis that he’d worked with Jewish colleagues — Albert Einstein, Bohr and Wolgang Pauli head that list. And though Heisenberg was a patriot, having stood up for Hitler in political discussions and rejected job offers from outside the Fatherland, he was not sufficiently patriotic, according to an anonymous article in Das Schwartze Korps, the weekly magazine of the German SS — the kind of article that was so often a harbinger of an unannounced late-night arrest and deportation. As the impetuous Heisenberg expressed his outrage over the accusation and his contempt for his accusers, his friends turned suddenly icy, and soon after he was brought in for questioning in the basement of SS headquarters at Berlin’s Prinz-Albert-Strasse.

Heisenberg was not beaten, but he had been warned. His wife later said that the scene gave him nightmares for years. (According to a description in David Bodanis’ E=MC2, a mocking sign hung on walls of bare cement: “Breathe deeply and calmly.”) In light of his interrogation, then, it’s not altogether surprising that Heisenberg was among the first to sign up when the German Army’s Weapons Bureau began its work in September 1939. By 1940, he had delivered a report to the Third Reich on the plausibility of an atomic bomb, and had taken command of two production sites — in Berlin and at the University of Leipzig.

What is surprising is that, although Heisenberg was at the time obviously working to develop nuclear capabilities for the Third Reich, he also failed repeatedly to deliver. Were these failures due to circumstance, incompetence or, perhaps, to his own designs on sabotaging a Reich he pretended to serve? Heisenberg’s colleagues at the University of Leipzig said he was a brilliant theoretical mathematician but a shoddy engineer — and defensive to boot, unable to abide criticism. Still, as Allied forces were bombing his nation into oblivion, there was Heisenberg, heading the German A-bomb project, leaping to wrong conclusion after wrong conclusion and, as dramatized in one of Copenhagen’s most revelatory moments, even failing to tabulate a crucial formula on the critical mass needed to ignite a nuclear chain reaction.

Finally, there was Heisenberg’s unfathomable visit to the Bohrs in 1941. He must have known how much his old friends would now despise him, and the journey was fraught with danger on almost every front. On that unaccountable act of courage, as on so much else, the playwright speculates. And because Frayn keeps replaying the reunion in the moments directly before and after the men’s historic, enigmatic amble out of doors, we’re denied the spectacle of that confrontation and left instead to examine the tracks and the traces, observing, like these very mathematicians, the movements of particles before and after a collision, in order to piece together the implications of an unknowable conversation.

Frayn isn’t the first playwright to arrive at an equivocating defense of a Nazi collaborator; Ronald Harwood did much the same in Taking Sides, about conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, in a production last year at the Odyssey Theater. But where Harwood’s play was about the Nazi in all of us, Frayn’s focus is on how the location of a human mind, or will, like that of a subatomic particle, is almost impossible to discern, due to factors of motion and perspective and paradox. That difficulty in physics was famously pointed out by Einstein and built upon by Heisenberg’s own Uncertainty Principle, here dramatized in the play’s very structure. Although that principle is often misunderstood to mean that nothing can be known for certain, that’s not what Heisenberg meant, nor is it what Frayn’s play reflects. The Uncertainty Principle is actually a concrete mathematical postulation that formulates the degree to which, when a particle can be identified, its direction and velocity cannot. (Conversely, when a particle’s movement is determined, its precise location is unknowable.) In one scene, Bohr tells the younger prodigy that because he’s still skiing so fast (an allusion to happier days), nobody knows exactly where he is — an observation that emblemizes the play’s central concerns: Where was Heisenberg’s soul, his nucleus, and how can we possibly determine it?

In the national touring production of Copenhagen, now at the Wilshire Theater, Peter J. Davison’s barren light-wood set resembles an operating theater, with some audience members seated behind and above the action. The play’s present tense is a kind of purgatory, with the trio all dead but not quite gone, and cognizant of it. For the snappy reveries into the living past, Mark Henderson and Michael Lincoln’s lights turn as steely and cerebral as the play’s overriding concept — a stern tonality for which director Michael Blakemore compensates by guiding his actors through a welcome, emotive interpretation.

Cariou’s stocky Bohr cuts a warm, paternal figure with a rumbling voice and abrupt, tempestuous mood swings. He was still finding his rhythm on press night and will doubtless find it sooner than later. Stratton’s Heisenberg is an odd presence, somehow both blustery and icy, arrogant and petulant, at times pathetic, such a jumble of emotions, no single judgment of him prevails — which seems very much to the purpose at hand. Hartley’s wry Margrethe spits fire through her glares while comporting herself with classical dignity, buttressed by sarcasm. She also serves as the nucleus around which the men orbit, and Blakemore’s exquisitely composed staging has just that idea in mind.

Frayn’s dramatic successes have ranged from backstage farce (Noises Off) to Chekhov (Wild Honey), and now to scientific/historical inquiry. But each play has settled into a kind of grieving over the loss of human potential, over the farcical, pointless, even nihilistic waste of our collective energy and brilliance — and over the way that minds as potent as Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s can lead us straight off the edge of the world.

COPENHAGEN | By MICHAEL FRAYN At the WILSHIRE THEATER, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills Through January 6

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