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Science Takes the Stage

Jan 08 2010
Terry Teachout | Wall Street Journal

How do you make science stageworthy? One way is by dramatizing the lives of scientists. Another is by using their ideas as a pretext for talking about something completely different. In "The Life of Galileo" and "Copenhagen," Bertolt Brecht and Michael Frayn seem to split the difference--but it isn't hard to see where their true sympathies lie. Though Brecht took care to portray Galileo Galilei as a rounded character, his real purpose in writing "The Life of Galileo" was to turn the great Italian physicist's fateful encounter with the Inquisition into a parable of the ability of "the slow and gentle power of human reason" to change men's minds. And while Mr. Frayn is no less adept at bringing Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg to life, "Copenhagen" is at bottom a thoroughly postmodern meditation on the ultimate unknowability of truth. That both of these knotty yet powerful plays are being performed to sterling effect by two of the best drama companies in Florida says much about the state of theater in the land of sunshine--all of it good. Unlike "The Life of Galileo," "Copenhagen" is a genuinely popular play. Not only did it run for 326 performances on Broadway after opening there in 2000, but it still gets done with better-than-fair regularity by regional theaters around the country, partly because it's so good and partly because it has only three characters and needs no scenery or props. What "Copenhagen" demands is first-class acting, and Palm Beach Dramaworks' revival, directed with tautness and unexpected physical immediacy by J. Barry Lewis, supplies that commodity in abundance. Like the company's 2009 production of Eugène Ionesco's "The Chairs," also directed by Mr. Lewis, this staging takes a difficult play and makes it cellophane-clear. Christopher Oden, Colin McPhillamy and Elizabeth Dimon, all of whom are new to me, bat Mr. Frayn's arcane conversational gambits back and forth like shuttlecocks, creating the illusion that you're watching a drawing-room comedy instead of a deadly serious play about the desperate hours when America and Nazi Germany raced against one another to build the first atomic bomb. Seeing "Copenhagen" in Palm Beach Dramaworks' 84-seat theater instead of a cavernous Broadway house sharpens the focus still further--an invaluable contribution to a play whose animating premise is that our capacity to get to the bottom of any historical event is fatally compromised by what one of the characters describes as "that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things." It's noteworthy, by the way, that a pleasure dome like Palm Beach should also be the home of a drama troupe that not only specializes in shows like "Copenhagen" and "The Chairs" but performs them with flair. We have it on the best of authority that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, but Palm Beach Dramaworks seems to be doing quite well for itself by operating on the opposite assumption.