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Mystery Meeting

What happened when Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr spoke in 1941?

Nobel Prize-winning physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr were great friends until World War II, which ended their relationship. Heisenberg was a German who chose to stay in his country to work for the Nazis. Bohr, who was Danish and half-Jewish, lived through much of the war in occupied Denmark. In 1941, the two men had a meeting at Heisenberg's insistence. The results of that discussion, which ended quickly and badly, with Bohr stomping away from the German in a rage, have been kept a mystery for decades. The script of Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning Copenhagen, the dark and elegant play now running at Main Street Theater, speculates on what happened during their brief talk, which most likely had something to do with nuclear fission and all that it implies -- namely, the fate of the world.

The liquid texture of memory is one of Frayn's most powerful motifs, and it runs throughout the script. Heisenberg (Thomas Prior) spent a good deal of time after the war trying to explain the infamous meeting. He wanted the public to believe that he was trying to warn Bohr about German advances in nuclear fission. In the play, he keeps insisting that Bohr never gave him a chance to explain himself. But Bohr (Charles Tanner) doesn't buy his story. And he can't forgive his old friend and student for remaining in Germany when so many scientists, including Einstein, fled the monstrous Third Reich.

Also present is Bohr's wife, Margrethe (Claire Hart-Palumbo). Though she feels some compassion for the younger Heisenberg, she argues that he wants to show off in front of his old professor. After all, by 1941, Heisenberg had become the most important scientist in one of the most powerful nations in the world.

The quietly forceful cast: Charles Tanner, Claire 
Hart-Palumbo and Thomas Prior.
Courtesy of Main Street Theater
The quietly forceful cast: Charles Tanner, Claire Hart-Palumbo and Thomas Prior.

Woven into these competing memories are other histories. There's the first meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr. It happens when Bohr is lecturing to an auditorium full of students, and "up jumps a cheeky pup" who tells him his "mathematics are wrong." Of course the pup is Heisenberg, who went on to become Bohr's most famous student. There's also the drowning of Bohr's son, a memory that returns again and again, shadowing everything the great thinker does and revealing the human frailty of even the greatest minds of modern time.

Bringing all these big ideas to life is the quietly forceful cast at Main Street Theater, directed with geometric precision by Rebecca Greene Udden. The stage is empty, save for three plain brown chairs that the actors move about from scene to scene. Lacquered across the floor are enormous yellowed images: mathematical equations, words from Goethe, drawings of protons. Otherwise, the stage is empty, as it should be, for the focus is on memory, and each character's memories are so different.

Especially moving is Prior as the much-maligned Heisenberg. He insists that by remaining in Germany, he was only trying to be loyal to the country that he loved -- a country that he remembers as suffering through disastrous times after WWI. He argues that he only wanted to save his country and didn't want to help the Germans destroy the world. As played by Prior, Heisenberg becomes a sad and frail man who responded to one of the most significant moments in modern history in a painfully human way, wrong as he may have been.

Frayn's script never does answer what happened at the meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg. It only posits a myriad of almost poetic possibilities.

Ironically, in 2002 (Frayn's script was first produced in London in 1998), Bohr's family released a private letter Bohr wrote to Heisenberg after their 1941 meeting. For some reason, he'd never mailed it. Current historians argue that Bohr's letter makes it clear that in the brief conversation, Bohr discovered that Heisenberg was working on nuclear fission and a bomb, a fact that horrified him. Of course, other historians argue that Bohr's letter only makes clear that he didn't understand that Heisenberg was trying to warn him. Heisenberg was, after all, under the watchful eye of the Nazis during his entire trip to Copenhagen in 1941.

The continued conversation about that meeting only underscores the human truth behind Frayn's script, which shows so beautifully how memory, frail as it might be, shapes our lives -- and all of history -- with frightening power.

Through February 14 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706. $20-$30.

Deadly Day Care

All upwardly mobile parents will enjoy the hysterically apt cautionary tale running at Stages Repertory Theatre. Eric Coble's wicked satire Bright Ideas focuses on Joshua and Genevra Bradley, two parents whose good intentions lead to nothing less than murder.

Like all mommies and daddies, they want only the best for their child. And the best means Bright Ideas, a day care whose waiting list is years long. The Bradleys are next in line, but they're worried they won't get their son into the school in time. When Genevra (Susan O. Koozin) learns that a woman she works with has gotten her son into Bright Ideas, Genevra and Joshua (Josh Morrison) devise a plan to kill off the woman so they can get her place.

What follows is a kooky plot filled with smart references to Macbeth. It includes a scene in which Genevra toils and troubles over the poisonous brew she feeds her friend, and a moment in which Joshua, eaten up by guilt, goes a bit loony and talks of spots that aren't there.

A good part of the success of this production is the fiery cast, sparked to blazing life by the fun-filled direction of Kenn McLaughlin. Morrison and Koozin are backed up by Shelley Calene-Black, Sally Edmundson and Dwight Clark, who each play several smaller roles with wonderful scenery-chewing glee. The murder scene is a riot. Genevra cooks her friend (played with snaky oiliness by Edmundson) poisoned pesto sauce, then ends up with it all over her hands. Joshua runs back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, appeasing both his wife and her friend. The show's farcical nature has an I Love Lucy flavor to it, but its humor also has a new-millennium feel that makes it infectious. There are many laugh-out-loud moments throughout the show.

And anyone with children can't help but recognize a bit of themselves in these characters, who will do anything for their offspring, even if that means becoming everything they hope their children don't.

Through February 8 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. $25-$35.

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