Monday, August 5, 2013

WTF No. 2: Stoppard's HAPGOOD Takes No Prisoners

Note the woman wearing the suit in the Williamstown Theatre Festival illustration for Tom Stoppard's Hapgood shown above. She's carrying a briefcase. And the shadowy pair we see on the wall are exchanging a briefcase, as well. Briefcases, shadowy pairs, a working woman in the center of things, trying to stay one step ahead... That's what Stoppard's stylish 1988 play is all about.

Watching the play, you might first conclude it's about spies, or maybe about twins, or maybe even about the uncertainty involved in truly knowing, whether that's applied to people, physics or espionage. There are some trademark clever, dense, bewitching Stoppard speeches about Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the Seven Bridges of Königsberg given to another character, a scientist/spy named Kerner, but it's still Hapgood, played in Williamstown by the flinty, classy and engaging Kate Burton, who forms the central question in the play. She's a female. She's a mother. Her fellow spies call her Mrs. Hapgood as a courtesy title even though she's not married, her code name is Mother, and there are definitely gender issues involved in how she is regarded by those around her. Like so many women, Hapgood is trying to balance it all, whether "it" means her job, her sex life, or her kid and his soccer practice. She's also in charge of a whole division of intelligence agents, some of whom respect her. Some keep coming on to her, making it clear they still see her as a woman foremost, whether she's the boss or not.

That was the surprise of the Williamstown production, how much it was about her as a her. Yes, Stoppard's delightful dialogue and perfectly crafted speeches do set up paradoxes and puzzles around the notion of twins and the "duality of reality," as dramaturg Christine Scarfuto puts it in her program notes. Yes, Hapgood's duality is mirrored in Kerner's duality (or possibly triality or quadrality or quintality) and in all the twin spies and all the murky masks everybody hides behind all through the play. But it still all comes back to Hapgood herself, as we hang with her through all the puzzles Stoppard sets up and pays off, wondering whether she can keep her job, keep her son, keep her lover, keep her subordinates in order, bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let all the men around her forget they are men.

At Williamstown, director Evan Yionoulis, who is herself a woman, balanced all those thorny issues with a slick, cynical, snazzy production that never let up on pace or theatrics. Everything about this Hapgood flowed beautifully, from the sharply choreographed opening scene involving briefcase drops, swimmers, towels and doors to Kerner's musings on continuous and discontinuous light, and the crosses and doublecrosses in Act II.

Kate Burton is on target throughout, and she is nicely matched by Jake Weber's world-weary Kerner, whose sad eyes and soft Russian accent make him seem the regular Joe he says he is, as well as canny, cagey and very attractive, all at once. It's a laugh line when Kerner promises us he "will be magnificent" at the end of Act I, and yet Weber actually lived up to that billing. The role of Kerner has been played by two of my favorite actors, with Roger Rees originating the part in London and in Los Angeles (the US premiere) and David Strathairn taking it in New York. I wish I'd seen both of them, but for now, filing Jake Weber's Kerner in my memory bank is just fine.

Yionoulis's cast also included Reed Birney, thoughtful and strong as Hapgood's boss, and Euan Morton, quite good as a sneaky little rat terrier who may be more than he appears. The only misstep in the cast was the young man who played Hapgood's son. The script says he's eleven, but an actor who appeared to be over 18, playing down to perhaps 16, took the role in Williamstown. I'm sure there were good reasons why nobody under twelve was available and it certainly isn't mop-top Adam Langdon's fault he got stuck trying to look young, but it significantly changes the tension surrounding the boy if he's not really a boy.

I traveled all the way to the corner of Massachusetts to see this play, one I had long hoped to get to experience. How lovely to get such a terrific production, with the ideas, the wit and the heart fully developed.

By Tom Stoppard

Williamstown Theatre Festival

Director: Evan Yionoulis
Scenic Designers: Christopher Barreca and Christopher Heilman
Costume Designer: Michael Krass
Lighting Designer: Donald Holder
Sound Designer: Alex Neumann
Original Music by Mike Yionoulis

Dialect and Vocal Coach: Deborah Hecht
Production Stage Manager: Liza Vest

Cast: Stephen Amenta, Reed Birney, Kate Burton, Nicholas Carter, David Corenswet, Brady Dowad, Philip Esposito, Adam Langdon, Euan Morton, Christian Schneider, Sathya Sridharan, Jake Weber and Victor Williams.

July 10-21, 2013


  1. Well said, Julie! This is a gem of a Stoppard play, and I just don't understand what (some) people are talking about when they say it's hard to understand or devoid of heart. It plays like gangbusters if done well (as it was at WTF), and is neither long nor dense. Plus it's full of crackerjack dramatic effects like that opening scene: Swimming-pool changing-room with cubicles - spy enters, slides briefcase under a door, takes towel, enters next cubicle - 2nd spy does just the same but one door down - etc., and all timed to a sizzling metallic beat.

    It's certainly true about Adam Langdon. I know it's hard to deal with children in professional theater: Equity requires "sitters" during rehearsals and show, time with them is contractually limited, and so on. But with all these actors liking to plunk the family down in Williamstown for a month or so (isn't that one of its attractions for established actors?), I'd think somebody might have come up with a young boy for the part. In this case, I guess we were supposed to (as in various kinds of nontraditional casting) "read" him as 11, no matter what he looked like... but it was out of key with everything else, and inevitably didn't conjure up the right poignancy and vulnerability.

    Still, everything else was aces. Kate Burton, just right in every way. Jake Weber completely the equal of David Strathairn (whom I did see). Everyone else right on target and the production properly conceived and sharply executed. I'm so glad I saw this.

  2. Crackerjack is a perfect word for this production as a whole. There was just this sense that everything was moving forward as it should, tense and yet purposeful and assured, as if everyone was totally on his or her toes. Such a pleasure to see something working on all cylinders like that. Crackerjack, indeed!

    I need to see Roger Rees and David Strathairn doing the Russian accent. Is that too much to ask? Among the three, I think Jake Weber looks the most plausibly Russian, but that's so subjective. Still, he had the look of an icon with his hair that way. St. Boris, maybe.

  3. Quite a lot of sons in that cast. Unfortunately, Kate Burton's son is in his 20s, Reed Birney's is 17 in two days, Jake Weber's is only 7 and Euan Morton's just turned 5. I tried to figure out whether Evan Yionoulis has children, and I discovered that a) composer Mike Yionoulis is her brother, and b) she is married to lighting designer Donald Holder, who is doing the lights for the Bridges of Madison County *and* Bullets Over Broadway. And they do indeed have a son who appears to be the right age. But maybe he was otherwise engaged or they do not want him in show biz. How very odd that every person I looked up has a son!

    Also, Jake Weber is English, which I did not know. I only knew him from MEDIUM, where he seemed very American. Since you saw him in the Ayckbourn play, Jon, perhaps you knew that.

  4. Ah, foolish jumping-to-conclusions me, I assumed that Mike was Evan's husband. Those relationships are very interesting. I certainly don't mean to demand that anyone in the production who has an 11-year-old son put him on the wicked stage posthaste. :) But somehow in all the production team and their families, or even those who live in the region knowing what a big deal this is locally -- SOMEbody should have been able to come up with a young boy.

    I knew Jake Weber had a kind of dual nationality going, informally if not legally. It was't obvious in the Ayckbourn either way, because that had a mixed-nationality cast anyway, all doing English accents (actually he was doing Italian-accent English, 5 ways). But I remember when MEDIUM started, the incorrigable TWoP forumites started ragging on his attempt at an American accent, which I thought was ridiculous, as he sounded completely authentic. I figured it was someone having looked up his place of birth and deciding to be snitty about it. (I mean, these are the forumites who tried to nominate Zeljko Ivanek for best fake American accent till I got snitty myself and pointed out that his family moved from Slovenia to NYC when he was 3 and he is always cast as American.) Anyway, Jake Weber had quite the tumultuous early life. His father, a racecar driver, trafficked in drugs and the family lived in one of Mick Jagger's houses. He would sometimes use young jake as a drug mule, e.g. to get cocaine to Mick and Bianca for their wedding. Then somehow he got out of all that (I seem to remember that an uncle stepped in), went to college in Vermont (English/PoliSci, cum laude) and then attended Juilliard Drama. He also studied at the Moscow Art Theatre, which may have helped with the Russian in the Stoppard. Anyway, he's lived in the US much longer than in the UK.

  5. That's what you call an interesting life. Good heavens. Drug mule for Mick and Bianca's wedding. Somebody needs to make a movie about him. I did notice the Middlebury reference, and I mused for a second or two on the possibility he took Russian from one of my favorite professors from undergrad (the one who taught my beginning Russian class) who left U of I and has been on the faculty at Middlebury for 35+ years.

  6. Supposedly there's a Jagger wedding video in which one can see 8-year-old Jake rolling joints for everyone.

    Anyway, he emerged from all that nicely. I loved listening to him as well as watching him as Kerner, with that lulling voice to make all that information about particles/waves wonderfully interesting. And the person listening would say "But I wanted you to tell me about X," and he would respond, "I just did, but you missed it."

  7. Other info about cast members: Euan Morton came to Broadway to star in the musical Taboo in 2002 and has stayed in the US ever since. He's married to Lee Armitage, a producer and the daughter of a former Deputy Secretary of State. They have homes in both NYC and Arlington VA (handy to Signature Theatre where he turns up fairly often for cabaret appearances when he's not doing other shows). He seems to get around the country for all kinds of theater (did Into the Woods in Kansas City for instance). Another interesting character.

  8. And, of course, we saw Euan Morton in "Sondheim on Sondheim," where he was terrific.

    Another small bit I loved in the script was how people kept telling Kerner his cover was blown and his career was over, and he'd reply, "Except as a scientist, you mean." :-)

  9. "Yes, that's what I mean."

    So many great bits in the script. The way she uses the dedicated one-to-one phone line with the Prime Minister for her son to call from boarding school, because "the other lines might be busy." The way she knew exactly how the American liaison (suspecting her as a security leak) had tailed her throughout a morning's shopping, and at the same time what she'd bought was a lemon, because she knows that's what he likes in his tea.

    I saw Euan Morton at Signature in Chess, in which he was also terrific. Pretty little Jill Paice was surprising in a belt-your-guts-out part, though.