Hapgoodby Tom Stoppard. Directed by Evan Yionoulis.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"As for the KGB, we’re just keeping each other in business.
We should send Christmas cards."
Duplicity is what the spy business is all about, it seems. Life, in general, isn’t far behind. For Elizabeth "Betty" Hapgood life and work have long-since combined and her troubles all stem from living in two worlds simultaneously. Not that living that way is ever easy, but she has risen through the ranks to become an important and in-charge person who is also, somewhat secretly, a mother. She can shoot better than most men. Her mind is a steel-trap enclosing secrets and their locations. She sends post cards from her official destinations back to her son. Her rational mind is always being stretched to accommodate all of her life, and not just one small area.
She is, probably, in love with a counter-spy who has fathered her teen-aged son. She has held a commanding post in the private lives of at least two of her colleagues. Her office staff are devoted to her and her code-name, or handle, is "mother" which is a name she embraces in her manner and her demeanor. Hapgood definitively defines the dichotomy that defines her profession.
This play is about that lifestyle and it is neither the first nor the last time playwright Tom Stoppard would use a manifesto of confusion to enlighten his audience. Beginning with his 1987 comedy "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" and continuing right up to the present his plays have been intellectual exercises in prevarication and honesty. On stage for the moment at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Nikos Stage, Hapgood is riding out her schemes, delusions and deliberations once again. The play premiered in America at the Mitzi E. Newhouse theater at Lincoln Center in late 1994 with a company of stars including Josef Sommer, David Strathairn and Stockard Channing, produced by Bernard Gersten (whose daughter is the producer of this latest edition at the WTF). It ran a modest 129 performances and this latest incarnation is only a modestly scaled limited summer theater run. It’s too bad because the play is good enough to stand another look.
Set in London in October, 1987 (it wouldn’t be a surprise if the author had mentioned his "R&G are Dead" but he doesn’t) the plot concerns a series of schemes to discover and prove who has leaked some sensitive documents to the Russians. In a men’s locker room a ballet of passed data and messages runs rampant under the watchful eye of Wates, an American agent played by Victor Williams. This rhythmic ritual dance sets the tone for the entire play and when it is partially replicated in the next to final scene the heady dramatics of the play finally reach a climax based on a concept of twinage.
Every character in this play is two-faced in some way. A few may even be one of twins. Hapgood herself could be a twin; she certainly has enough personality to be two people. Played here by Kate Burton, Hapgood is just about as fascinating a person as you could wish for in a play. Her loyalties switch on a dime and Burton makes this feel logical and natural. "Mother" is not a role for Hapgood and, again, Burton takes those moments of maternal clarity and whips them into a frenzy of support, emotional doggedness and love although with desertion possible around every corner.
As her lover, Kerner, the company has employed Jake Weber. Weber uses a heavy peasant Russian accent playing a renowned physicist double spy. His soft-sell technique is the exact opposite of Burton’s harder, more direct, more enthusiastic delivery and if opposites do attract Weber makes the most of his obvious opportunity to play to that ideal. His body language speaks louder than his voice. He acts with his entire being and the end-result here is a portrait of a man much more sure of himself than we might at first believe. He favors subtle over blatant characterization. The two of them have a genuine on-stage chemistry together.
Reed Birney as Paul Blair does an excellent job as their handler. So does Euan Morton as Ridley, the man at the middle of all things Hapgood. Adam Langdon is effective as Joe, Hapgood’s son. The balance of the company turn in fine work in what seems a very balanced company. Sathya Sridharan is fine in an insubstantial role as Maggs, Hapgood’s secretary.
The true star of the show, however, is the extraordinary set designed by Christopher Barreca and Christopher Heilman. A collection of doors and doorways that roll about and move into more configurations than seems possible, at one point stretching out past the horizon, give the play not just specific places but the rationale for espionage. Within minutes of the play’s beginning you want to find out what is behind each of them and as they revolve and rotate and spin and reconfigure the company uses them in so many ways it is almost dizzying. Doors become windows become wall safes become toilet stalls. The sense of duplicity and duplication enhances the theory of the play. You are never sure if the same door appears in the same place twice and as the twin chats engage the mind, so the doors engage the eyes.
Michael Krass engages us in the period of the play with his costumes that never seem to be specific, yet are absolutely reminiscent of the 1980s. Alex Neumann’s sound design brings the fluidity of the production together with his transitions using some exciting music by Mike Yionoulis. Deborah Hecht has done a fine job as dialect coach for this show and, without a doubt, all of these elements are drawn together beautifully by the lighting design work of Donald Holder. Holder defines space and time better than most designers and he captures elements of relationships perfectly as he pinpoints Hapgood and her cohorts in the long remembered vast spaces of the stage at the Nikos theater.
There’s not much time to see this play. Nearly twenty years old, now, it still speaks to our own time in so many ways that it feels new. As Hapgood herself needs to define her world, so we need to watch her do it in order to define our own.
Hapgood plays through July 21 on the Nikos Stage at Williams College in Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400.