Center Theater


Cactus Theatre

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Tom Stoppard is a playwright of dazzling wit, an artist capable of working in any number of permutations of the English language. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead he uses Shakespearean language to address the issues of predestination and self-determination. In Artist Descending a Staircase he uses the world of sound to contrast appearances with reality. In Jumpers he uses a troupe of acrobats to literalize the term “verbal gymnastics.” And in Hapgood Stoppard turns his attention to the languages of espionage and physics to study the art of deception.

Hapgood takes its title from its central character, a woman who runs a British intelligence agency. Her life of deceit has estranged her from her son and from the Soviet scientist who was both her secret contact, or “Joe” in spyspeak, and her son’s father. Unable to separate her personal life from her life as an intelligence agent, she has even given her son the name “Joe.”

The plot concerns the discovery of a mole within the agency who has apparently passed on information to the other side. Could it be Ridley, the cocky agent with the damn-it-to-hell attitude? Could it be the incorrigibly British Blair, the tea-sipping snob no one would ever suspect? Could it be Kerner, the brilliant Soviet scientist who fathered Hapgood’s son? Could it be Hapgood herself? Discovering the mole is further complicated by the appearance of sets of twins, which in effect enables characters to be in two places at one time.

As in Stoppard’s other post-Cold War espionage thriller–his loopy screen adaptation of John LeCarre’s The Russia House–who did it is not really the point. Stoppard is concerned instead with the language of spying and the complexities engendered by a life in which one is forced to play two, three, or more roles. He draws parallels between spies and subatomic particles: both can appear to be two places at once. He also relates espionage to wave and particle theories of light, which seem to dictate that one element can behave in two seemingly contradictory ways. As Kerner the scientist observes, “We are what we seem or we are opposite.”

The convoluted worlds of science and of moles and mysterious briefcases would seem the perfect subjects for Stoppard, full of possibilities for wit. But in Center Theater’s production, directed by Mary Zimmerman, Hapgood comes off a lot less fun than it sounds, ultimately becoming needlessly frustrating: the characters seem engulfed in this dizzying vortex of wordplay and plot devices.

The production is leaden and wrings Stoppard’s words dry, robbing them of their wit and playfulness. Part of the fun of a Stoppard play should be the effortless execution of all the complications of language and plot; in this production there’s too much didacticism and not enough humor. Zimmerman makes the plot comprehensible and tries desperately to clarify the theoretical aspects of the play, but in so doing she flattens the characters and makes Stoppard seem a linguistic show-off playing chess with himself.

The characters here seem pale, two-dimensional sketches of their counterparts in Stoppard’s adaptation of The Russia House, to which this play bears more than a passing resemblance. Dan LaMorte’s Russian scientist is a two-dimensional Klaus Maria Brandauer, stock philosopher and drinker of Stoli. Gus Buktenica’s Blair is a leaden James Fox, and Senuwell Smith, saddled with the Roy Scheider role of the thickheaded American intelligence man, does little to convey the power and ferocity of a man of his position. JoAnn Carney is not a credible Hapgood; she exhibits none of the strength or cunning a career intelligence officer would have.

Accents are also problematic. Some are weak; others inconsistent. Announcements to the audience informing them of changes in scene are read over the sound system like airline information at O’Hare, and they’re muddied by the din of electronic music. Those who come off best here are lighting designer Chris Phillips and set designer Rob Hamilton, who have devised a minimalistic multipurpose set that’s quite attractive, and Marc Vann in the role of Ridley–he alone manages to breathe life into his character.

Sometimes knock-down-drag-out arguments start from the most trivial of things: pubic hair on a toilet seat or an uncapped toothpaste tube, for instance. “Dream Ridden . . . Bed Bound,” a pair of one-act plays performed by Cactus Theatre at the Chicago Dramatists Workshop, brings us contrasting portraits of this sort of domestic angst.

In Wil Calhoun’s Call It Clover, Perry and his bedridden companion Sandy argue over a tomato missing from the fridge. Perry storms out of the apartment, leaving his best friend Eddie to contend with the impossibly shrewish Sandy; she entices and rebuffs the hapless Eddie by turn.

Call It Clover offers some snappy dialogue and moments of tension, but it’s undercut by the characters’ improbable twists of mood, particularly those of the profanity-spewing Sandy: she switches from talking sweetly about her dreams to chanting “Needledick! Needledick!” like the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The play also condescends to its characters, especially to working-class Eddie. He calls Greece a bunch of “old ruins and shit” and refers to Sandy’s fantasies as her “dreams and shit.” Sure, people talk like this, but the playwright seems to be making fun of the characters, and it comes off as dishonest.

Michael Weller’s At Home begins with an argument over a carrot in the home of Carol and Paul, better known as Happily Married Couple #106. When Carol punctures a carrot with a pencil, the pair work themselves into such a tizzy that the entire foundation of their marriage is shattered–like the dishes that one of the characters throws.

The couple’s argument in At Home is incredibly realistic, but the characters are dull and unappealing. Watching the play is kind of like spending an hour or so at home with the yuppie couple you glimpsed at the next table at Carlucci, or watching Rob and Laura Petrie’s marriage disintegrate.

Good performances in both plays, though. Cactus Theatre creates believable characters and the actors show great skill. Would that they had spent their efforts on a couple of more interesting scripts.