at Victory Gardens Theater
By Justin Hayford
As physicist Niels Bohr and a cadre of other adventurous quantum physicists postulated in the early part of the 20th century, uncertainty is the foundation of the subatomic world. According to the best known branch of quantum theory, the Copenhagen Interpretation, subatomic entities will behave like particles or waves depending on how they’re measured. In this school of thought, the act of observation is what gives subatomic entities their place in the world; electrons have no position or momentum except when those properties are being observed. When we look, an electron falls into place. When we look away, its probability waves begin to spread across space–meaning that the electron could suddenly appear at the other end of the galaxy without traversing the distance in between, in a mind-warping process called quantum tunneling.
Tom Stoppard in his 1988 play Hapgood attempts to turn the unnerving indeterminacy of quantum mechanics into the existential backdrop of a cold-war spy drama. The idea may sound ludicrous, but Stoppard is just the sort of brainy playwright who might pull it off. In fact he created Arcadia, one of his greatest plays, through a similar dramatic experiment, using the central tenets of chaos theory to probe the mysteries of love.
But in Arcadia Stoppard gives us not only a keen and nuanced understanding of science but a compelling human story. In Hapgood he gives us neither. The play is set in London during the waning days of the cold war. Hapgood, a 38-year-old single mother, runs a British intelligence agency that’s trying to provide Kerner, a Russian physicist and double agent, a safe space in which to perfect some sort of antimatter weapon without blowing his cover to the KGB. So she and her agents construct elaborate schemes to help Kerner feed phony research reports to his Russian bosses; in the play’s opening scene–involving a half dozen agents in a pool locker room surreptitiously handing off briefcases and towels–one such scheme goes completely awry.
For nearly the entire first act Hapgood and her associates meet in various combinations to try to figure out what went wrong at the pool. But Stoppard packs their dialogue with so many coded words it’s difficult to understand what happened at all. It seems that Kerner’s real research did get to the Russians, but since Stoppard never makes clear what Kerner’s work is or what might ensue if it ends up in the wrong hands, it’s difficult to care. All that’s clear is that someone within Hapgood’s organization must be crooked, probably an agent named Ridley. But again Stoppard doesn’t establish why discovering this fact is important enough to eat up an entire act. If Ridley is a double agent, are people’s lives at stake? Will he help the Russians turn Kerner’s research into a nuclear threat?
Into this opaque world saunters the impish Kerner, who delights in muddying the waters. While Hapgood’s men speak in code, he speaks in physics, explaining wave/particle indeterminacy at great length. Subatomic particles defeat surveillance, he explains, since they can be two things at once. They can disappear and reappear. The closer you look at them, the less you know about them. Of course they share these qualities with spies, which anyone who’s read a dime-store spy novel already knows–Stoppard skims off only the most obvious and unenlightening of quantum theory’s mind-bending mysteries.
In the second act the playwright remembers to give his lead characters some personal stakes, so in addition to the invention of a sting to catch Ridley, he lets us in on Hapgood’s unrequited love for Kerner and hatches an elaborate plot in which Hapgood’s ten-year-old son may or may not have been kidnapped. Almost nothing in the first act–including a CIA agent who all but vanishes in act two–is necessary for these story lines. The only exception is the possibility of Ridley’s guilt, which might have been established in about seven minutes. In essence the play does its own quantum tunneling during intermission, leaping from one set of plot lines to another without traveling the distance between.
Stoppard couldn’t ask for better treatment than he gets at the hands of Remy Bumppo. James Bohnen directs with calm assurance, expertly crafting the doubly guarded world of British intelligence and giving the evening a brisk pace–it’s not his fault Stoppard goes on for two and a half hours. Bohnen’s nine cast members proceed practically without a misstep. Annabel Armour captures the deep insecurities beneath Hapgood’s meticulously maintained exterior as she comes to realize that her personal life has been gutted by the demands of her profession. Nick Sandys displays all the charming menace the street-smart Ridley requires. Even Matthew Canfield in the thankless role of Hapgood’s son is convincing: he seems an actual awkward child rather than a calculatedly awkward child actor.
But the evening truly belongs to David Darlow as Kerner and Joe Van Slyke as Blair, one of Hapgood’s senior agents. Two of Chicago’s finest, most emotionally nuanced actors, they can capture entire life histories in a simple glance. When they end up alone on a park bench midway through the second act, old friends each quietly trying to figure out if the other is a turncoat, they show just how completely a drama can be played out in the most economical of terms.
With this production the Remy Bumppo folks have provided an important service: if all their talent, care, and intelligence still produce an evening of theater this inconsequential, then no other company need ever bother to produce Hapgood again.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.