The backdrop is a painted starscape, its heavens whirling with purplish cosmic dust. The tiling of the floor below suggests a textbook's familiar spirographing diagram of the inside of an atom: a nucleus from which electron orbits bloom like flower petals. In between stand the actors, playing physicists and spouses and, of course, humanity itself, lost somewhere between infinities and struggling to make sense of it all.
And facing them, at this Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of Michael Frayn's dense but rewarding drama Copenhagen, is an audience too rarely confronted with narrative entertainment that pushes them to think.
The play examines a risky wartime visit paid by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg to his colleague Niels Bohr in occupied Denmark. Along the way, it also considers friendship, memory, the fractious history of 20th-century Europe, and how our understanding of atomic realities is as devastating for old ideas of truth as it is for the cities targeted for nuclear destruction.
What story there is unfolds in a dream space. Once the principals — Heisenberg, Bohrs and Bohrs' wife, Margrethe — have, in chantlike tandem, let us know that they're dead, they reflect on Heisenberg's visit, sometimes in dreary overlapping monologues but more often in exciting full re-enactment. The key question: Why would Heisenberg, already tailed by the Gestapo, risk all of their lives for a consultation with the half-Jewish Bohrs?
Richer questions follow, involving the morality of nuclear experimentation and, in a moment of sheer Cold War horror nicely evoked by director Karen Paisley's staging, why Hiroshima's fate was not London's.
Herman Johansen, who plays Bohrs, comes off severe, radiating Old World authority and impatience. He is often extraordinary, as adroit with Frayn's great wads of science talk as he is at crafting a living relationship with Cynthia Hyer's Margrethe. As the eccentric Heisenberg, John Robert Paisley is all youthful excitement, even in death. In Paisley's interpretation, Heisenberg is always dead-certain about what he's after, despite the fact that the very name Heisenberg is synonymous with uncertainty.
Margrethe, unfortunately, is more a narrator and a referee than a character. There's a snap to Hyer's delivery, but she never finds the human warmth beneath what is essentially a narrative device. In the early going the night I saw the play, the cast garbled some of the technical dialogue or stepped on one another's cues, but as the stakes heightened and the material soaked through with emotion, everyone improved, especially Paisley.
Copenhagen takes awhile to circle its key questions. Before the play, director Paisley invites everyone to munch on MET's free snacks at intermission, which she does because she's a pleasant hostess but also to tip us off: After the hour-plus first act, Copenhagen might feel wrapped up, but it's just getting started.
Of course, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle tells us that the act of observation fundamentally alters what is observed, an insight that pretty much makes the idea of reviewing a play a lost cause. It's entirely possible that, when I'm not around, Copenhagen doesn't exist at all. Best case scenario: It does, but it's half an hour shorter.
Here's one truth solid enough to trust in. The men-in-falsies fun of Late Night Theatre is back, with astonishing wigs, from-nowhere dance numbers and Ron Megee marshaling a United Nations' worth of ridiculous accents.
At a children's theater.
The Coterie's production of Sideways Stories From Wayside School is a near-constant delight. The elementary school set is a cartoon come to life, with baguette-sized chalk, cake-frosting walls and trapezoid windows cocked like the eyes of a happy jack-o'-lantern. When Principal Kidswatter makes an announcement, great red lips burst from a speaker box; the kids onstage all scream every time anyone dares speak aloud the name of Mrs. Gorf, a hideous crone of a teacher who threatens to turn her students into apples and bake them into a pie. Based on books by Louis Sachar, this production is garish, noisy, goofy and rude — all the things that most kids are.
That also describes Megee, who stars as a succession of impossible grown-ups of both sexes, and Missy Koonce, who succeeds in applying the Late Night aesthetic to kids' entertainment. When she worked some of the same drag sensibility into Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, I quailed: Judy Blume is not a burlesque! Here, it's just more strangeness scooped onto Sachar's heap.
The cast is strong, but this is Megee's show. He plays that crone, a leggy tango instructor, a frog-voiced German psychiatrist and some sort of sexless European vampire. Megee's silly walks and voices are inspired, and Mary Traylor's costumes are impressively imaginative. My favorite: Mr. Pickel, which finds Megee, his cheeks rosy as a Norman Rockwell moppet's, sporting an orange-soda Caesar cut and a no-mustache goatee so long and flaming that it might be Harry Knowles' vestigial tail.
Yes, the Coterie is a kids' theater. But anyone interested in Late Night, stage comedy or good old-fashioned imaginative dress-up is encouraged to grab a kid (or not) and make a weekend matinée.