nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 3, 2010
Back in 1994, I saw the American premiere of Tom Stoppard's Hapgood at Lincoln Center Theater. I don't remember much about it, except that it left me thoroughly confused; I simply couldn't follow the tangly plot about double- and triple-agents and quantum physics, which confounds me as I look back on it because only a few months later I saw Stoppard's much more complicated Arcadia and comprehended and savored every second of it.
Now I have just seen Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's revival of Hapgood—the first that I'm aware of in NYC since that original production—and I'm glad to report that I was totally in tune with it this time around. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, even while recognizing that this is probably lesser Stoppard and does seem to fizzle out in its second act. I don't think I've gotten particularly smarter in the intervening 16 years, so I'm going to go out on a limb and say that John Giampetro's production of Hapgood for Phoenix is clearer and more focused than Jack O'Brien's at LCT was. Fans of Stoppard, and of literate, adult drama, will want to catch this rare opportunity to see this unusual post-Cold War play.
Hapgood is about a group of top British spies who discover a leak in their operation and stage an elaborate operation to patch it. Elizabeth Hapgood is a brainy, calculating master agent—she plays chess by phone without a board—and also a bit of a maverick (in one of the play's funniest scenes, she sends an underling on a mission that sounds authentically urgent but that we know to be the delivery of boots to her son at school). The mole seems to be part of her organization: perhaps it's Josef Kerner, a Russian scientist who is already a double-agent; or Ridley, Hapgood's right-hand man; or perhaps it's Hapgood herself. I certainly won't tell you here: Stoppard has a grand time crafting a complicated web of intrigue, even as he deconstructs and sends up the espionage thriller form (Hapgood is, for the most part, a comedy).
Interwoven with this complex plot are explanations and considerations of quantum theory, whose discovery literally revolutionized, well, everything, and arguably made postmodernism possible. Stoppard, as usual, does a masterful job bringing these difficult concepts to life by illustrating them with startling clarity within his story. Thus the important idea of modern physics that you can't measure the location or speed of a particle without changing one or the other pervades Hapgood via several analogies that demonstrate how much our own expectations and perceptions color our experience of the world.
Stoppard's plot eventually becomes too convoluted for its own good: I got a sense of the playwright trying to out-LeCarre LeCarre, and he loses sight of what we love about the characters when this happens. But for most of Hapgood, the gamesmanship and intrigue are utterly enjoyable and engaging.
Phoenix Theatre's production is staged with simplicity and forthrightness, with a very functional set design by Jay Ryan, who also supplied lighting that highlights and heightens the suspense effectively. The cast is fine. Phoenix fans (and Jean Cocteau Rep fans from before Phoenix's inception) will be delighted to see Elise Stone and Craig Smith playing opposite one another as Hapgood and her spymaster Blair; both deliver impeccable performances and their chemistry, as always, is terrific. Joe Menino is excellent as Kerner, providing real clarity for the play's most difficult speeches (he's the one who has to explain the physics to us). Jason O'Connell is the fish-out-of-water Ridley, whose gruff, coarse exterior contrasts sharply with the other spies' demeanors. In supporting roles, Keith Hamilton Cobb, Josh Tyson, Brian Costello, David Joseph Regelmann, and young Jack Tartaglia all do expert work.
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble once again proves themselves to be an invaluable resource within the indie theater community in New York, bringing to the stage a fascinating contemporary work with insight and clarity. I was glad to have the chance to renew my acquaintance with Hapgood, and was especially pleased to finally discover its merits after all these years.