2 February 2008: Frayne, Copenhagen

Matinee.  American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Directed by Scott Zigler. First performance, 5 January 2008

We came as stand-by’s to this matinee performance after having been snowed out of an earlier one. The production ended its run this very night; so we were lucky not to have missed it. It is a wonderful, intense, and engrossing prod­uction of a play that my companion and I agreed, as we exited the theatre, seems already to have achieved classic status and seems destined to outlive us and our time. Overheard being said by an usher as we left: “I’ve seen twenty performan­ces of this play and I was still moved to tears at the end. The actors were really, really up for this.”

I saw the original production of the play in London at the Duchess Theatre after it transferred from the National Theatre, Cottesloe (was it in 2000? Or 1999? — I would have to look back through my programs to be sure). Surely this prod­uc­tion was fully the equal of that one. Will LeBow was absolutely right for Niels Bohr — he even looked like Bohr — bringing to it that instinctive sympathy for self-absorbed character that made him so successful in playing Molière’s narcis­sistic central characters such as the miser. John Kuntz, who also looked like his character — there are photos of Bohr and Heisenberg in the program — was a fine contrast with LeBow’s Bohr and a match for his intensity. Karen MacDonald, who can do just about anything, was a more animated, sometimes exasperated, yet clearly loving Margrethe Bohr than I remember the earlier actress (whoever she was) being. Margrethe is better played as an animated, deeply involved, understanding wife than a stoically accepting one, as earlier, even if MacDonald’s portrayal had some distinctly “American” features to it, in facial expression and body language. So be it. The play is adaptable.

A clear, bare stage, with three straight metal chairs, and lighting that pools in distinct areas. Upstage, two seemingly high flat walls of mirrors, gapped near the center to allow exit space; when lighted from behind, the mirrored walls became semitransparent though still quite dark, giving us a glimpse of a rather bleak exterior, mostly denuded branches of shrubbery. High above the acting area, three approximately concentric circles, at odd angles to one another, suspended over the stage, which turned out to describe the paths of traveling lights — a kind of realized metaphor for the paths traveled (if such paths could be charted; the physics of the play states that they could not) by particles that are the compon­ents of atoms: this was the totality of the setting for this production. The actors move the chairs to different positions and combinations on the stage from time to time, in this three-quarter round arrangement of the seating area. Nothing else.

And the play demands this spare, spartan treatment, in order for the intense, layered complexity of its dramaturgy to have its proper effect, its full resonance, in the theatre. Frayne has a faultless ear for natural (NB, not naturalistic, à la Mamet) dialogue and fine instincts for revealing the essentially human, and humane, elements that may seem to lie obscured and unattachable beneath a thick veneer of the scientific esoterica that makes up the apparent subject matter of the play. In the course of the performance, all of the depths, the layerings, of this complexity are revealed, are laid bare, for the “common reader,” as it were, or the theatrical audience-equivalent, to see and hear and understand.

It is one of those plays that simultaneously seems full and complete in itself, its many meanings clearly on view in a truly competent production, and yet sends you off to find a script in order to review, revisit, and further contemplate the important, even central, things that it has to tell us about the human con­dition, about war and its capacity to turn civilized people into savage barbarians, and about the lack of verifiability that characterizes all human attempts to remem­ber, to tell the truth, to know what we know, and to envision what we do not.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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