Hapgood goes inside the human heart

Quantum of psyche
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 7, 2012

LOOK CLOSELY The laws of physics say you can’t see everything, no matter how carefully you try. Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood extends these laws to the mind and the heart.

Here's a gloss on two basic theories about how things get weird at the subatomic level: First, a photon (light particle) is trickily capable of behaving like both a particle and a wave, and whether it acts as one or the other depends principally upon whether or not we are looking. Second, we can know either a photon's position in space or its momentum, but we can't know both at once: what we know about the photon depends on what we choose to look for. Familiarity with even this much quantum mechanics will enrich your experience of Tom Stoppard's devastatingly intelligent espionage drama, Hapgood, on stage now in a production by the Originals, under the direction of Dana Packard.

The basic implication of quantum behavior is that matter is not as knowable as we would like to think, and many modernists have explored its bracing logical corollary: Neither is human identity. In Hapgood, Stoppard doubles down on this premise by applying it to international intelligence agents — people accustomed to presenting one of any number of personas. But a spy isn't simply one person pretending to be another: The spy is both people, or many — which one depends on whom an observer is looking for.

The play's title character (Jennifer Porter) is at once British spymaster, perky single mom, and emotionally complex woman. She gets several lessons on quantum behavior from the Russian nuclear physicist Kerner (Matt Delamater, fervent and lyrical), who moonlights as a double agent for her and her superior Blair (a wry, gray, and restrained Paul Haley). And after things get confusingly quantum during a hand-off involving the fiercely savvy agent Ridley (the excellent Brian Chamberlain) and other operatives (they enact a sly shell game of briefcases and doors, stylishly set to cool jazz), so do the identities and motivations of all key players in the operation.

Hapgood is rich with twists, turns, and the coolly delivered lingo of scientists and spies (which would be more accessible with greater volume and enunciation from most of the cast). But it is really about neither quantum physics nor triple-agents, but rather the beautiful, treacherous, unknowable potential of the human mind and heart. It is that volatile multiplicity that makes the show so taut, and of Packard's cast, Delamater and Chamberlain show the most dynamism and, accordingly, the most interestingly fraught variance in identity. There are also the subtlest glints of that ambivalence in Haley's fine, close-to-the-chest Blair — in a pursed mouth, a gaze, a laconic two-word response — though I might bring them a touch closer to the surface.

I would especially like to see more hints of multiplicity in Porter's Hapgood. She masters the dimensions of the smart, cheerfully reassuring mother and the intelligence director who is called "Mother" by her agents, she who mothers her adorable secretary (the curly-haired Stowell P. Watters, perfectly eager and boyish), makes sure there's lemon for her spies' tea, and charmingly bends agency rules to get rugby shoes to her son (the superb young Milo Bloom). But I'd like to see deeper glimmers, however slight, of the dynamics between her and the three men with whom she works so closely, of the tension between the steely caution of her professional decisions and the outrageously dangerous choices she has made in her personal life. Porter's smiling softness works for one iteration of Hapgood — the most visible one — but it sometimes risks coming across as one-toned, despite the very interesting Hapgoods in deep or shallow cover.

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  Topics: Theater , Dana Packard, The Originals, Matt Delamater,  More more >
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