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Spy Games

by James Yeara on July 18, 2013

By Tom Stoppard, directed by Evan Yionoulis, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, through July 21


Hapgood is the sort thing that shines on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery; I expected the resplendent Alan Cummings to introduce the show with his eyes widening in mischief while caressing his rolling rrr’s. Or if Shakespeare were alive today, Hapgood would be his historical comedy. It’s a slice of 1980s Cold War espionage featuring two sets of twin spies, one set for England, one for Russia, who may also be double or triple spies—one may be a quadruple or quintuple spy—or not. This results in multiple misprisions, lots of laughs, clever wordplay, and complex scientific allusions. Tom Stoppard’s 1994 revision of his 1988 play receives a 2013 sleek, slick production under Evan Yionoulis’ direction at Williamstown Theatre Festival, and features an amusingly clever performance by WTF stalwart Kate Burton in the title role as Britain’s female spy chief. It’s sort of John le Carre’s Smiley’s People with actual smiles.

Burton in Hapgood

“Dashing” describes the opening scene: set in a men’s locker room of a public pool, the wooden locker doors opening and closing seemingly in time with techno music created by Mike Yionoulis. (Christopher Barreca and Christopher Heilman’s scenic design whirls these sets of wood cubicles to create spy headquarters, hotel rooms, etc., sort of like a wooden Rubik’s cube opened up to form a maze.) CIA operative Wates (Victor Williams) shaves while watching the entrance door open and the individual changing room doors open and close, with a white towel moved from cubicle to cubicle and matching aluminum attaché cases slid under the doors. It’s as if this were a rave for well-dressed gentlemen, all presented without dialogue.

When the spy rave music ends, the play’s spine takes shape: English spy Ridley (Euan Morton) was running an exchange of Russian scientist defector Kerner’s (Jake Weber) “Star Wars” anti-ballistic work to a Russian spy (Brady Dowad)—but the false work is real work, and the Russian spy seemed to double, as did the number of Ridleys as Blair (Reed Birney) reports to “Mother,” the code name for head of British Intelligence Hapgood (Burton). When the planted false work is discovered missing, both Ridley and Hapgood are under suspicion. The game’s afoot, and while Stoppard supplies the twisting riddles, director and cast make the puzzles and the games amusingly riveting.

While the critical cliché “the cast is uniformly excellent” usually is a bogus backhanded compliment, here it’s true: They are all focused, exact, and intriguing. An added richness lies in the love/spy triangle Ridley-Hapgood-Kerner, where Burton gets to create twin sisters, a treat not to be missed. Hapgood even offers a happy ending—or does it? Love, as in spying, is in the eye of the beholder.