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