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The Germans And The Bomb: A Postscript

Robert D. Murphy (Walther Gerlach), Will Lyman (Otto Hahn), and Ken Baltin (Max von Laue) in "Operation Epsilon." (A.R. Sinclair Photography)

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – What did Werner Heisenberg know and when did he know it?

The question of how the German genius physicist let the Americans beat him to the Atom Bomb leaps off the page of two intriguing plays, Michael Frayn’s 1998 award-winning play, “Copenhagen,” and now MIT Theater Professor Alan Brody’s “Operation Epsilon,” receiving its world premiere by the Nora Theatre Company at the Central Square Theater (through April 28).

“Epsilon” almost seems like a response to “Copenhagen,” at least in terms of Heisenberg. Frayn’s play dealt with imaginary conversations between Heisenberg, a physicist during the Nazi era, and his Danish colleague Niels Bohr, centered on their 1941 meeting. Was Heisenberg looking for information? Or did he have the information and choose not to give it to Hitler? Or did he even know what he was after? Uncertainty, thy name is Heisenberg.

Brody takes on a different historical situation – the 1945 quarantine of 10 leading German scientists after the war by the Allies in order to find out what the Germans knew. Heisenberg (Diego Arciniegas) is one of them, as is Nobel winner Otto Hahn (Will Lyman) and Max von Laue (Ken Baltin), another Nobel winner but in a different field. His presence is a mystery until the end.

Along with a British major (Barlow Adamson) looking on, we eavesdrop on the Germans upraiding each other, justifying their actions, bemoaning the Americans’ success (because they got there first), playing Beethoven, and comparing their lot (plentiful food and drink, beautiful setting) to a concentration camp.

Brody is clearly interested in the ethics of science – how can anything be considered pure science in the nuclear age – and the psychology of self-justification.

Brody is clearly interested in the ethics of science – how can anything be considered pure science in the nuclear age – and the psychology of self-justification. That’s certainly a good lesson for all of his MIT students. He also seems far more skeptical of Heisenberg than Frayn was. One suspects that Brody is closer to the historical truth.

Be that as it may, “Operation Epsilon” suffers in comparison to “Copenhagen,” as most factual plays must. Frayn’s Heisenberg is the more human, the more relatable. Do we ever know the truth of our own motivation? Would the Nazis have achieved world domination – what would have been left of the world – if Heisenberg had connected the dots?

Heisenberg, I should add, is not the central character of “Operation Epsilon.” It’s an ensemble piece with Hahn being the top dog. That’s all to the good, here, as there aren’t any dogs in Boston higher in the acting chain than Lyman, excellent as always as the conscience-stricken Hahn. The rest of the cast is fine, though the relationships between them and the English major, as well as between themselves should be less whiny and, pardon the term, more explosive.

Still, it’s a good history lesson and a good exploration of ethics. It’s also a very handsome production beautifully designed on two levels by Janie E. Howland and astutely choreographed by director Andy Sandberg. MIT and the Central Square Theater have a good thing going and “Operation Epsilon” brings credit to both of them.