Too clever for its own good, Tom Stoppard's Hapgoodoften comes off like a convoluted math problem -- it calls for lots of attention to details (of the how-many-people-went-through-which-door-when sort) that in the end, nobody is likely to care much about. Keeping up with the Alley Theatre's rather glitzy production calls for a serious amount of head scratching: The play is filled with long stretches of weirdly confusing plot twists made even more ponderous by its stitched-in poetic soliloquies on the wonders of quantum physics.
Of course, most Stoppard fans go to his shows prepared to pay attention. He is, after all, the writer of some fantastically brainy scripts, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Thing and the charmingly smart and accessible Shakespeare in Love. But Hapgood spends too much time with its head in the clouds to pack much of an intellectual or emotional punch.
The story, which takes place during the tail end of the cold war, focuses on Hapgood (Josie de Guzman), who goes by the name of Mother in the spy world she inhabits. She is, as her spy name implies, the loving boss of a pack of rather hapless British agents who spend much of their time trying to keep secrets from the Russians. Among Hapgood's troubles is the fact that she can never be sure who is loyal to whom. In fact, there are moments when the audience isn't even sure that Hapgood herself is loyal to her agency. Then there are the multiple sets of twins, both real and fictional, who appear at odd moments to muck everything up. Just when we think we know what's going on, there comes another twin to confuse us. There's also the little (and very cute) matter of Hapgood's young son: Who is his father? Will he stay safe from the evil Russians? Who will protect him best?
According to the program, Stoppard's plot apparently was inspired by the spy novels of John le Carré. But big-brained Stoppard is much too intelligent to build a story around simple plot twists. Pitched into the middle of this ever-winding thriller is the writer's fascination with the world of physics. And it's Kerner (Todd Waite), a Russian physicist/ double/triple/quadruple agent, who articulates Stoppard's enthusiasm for the subject. More than once, the Russian Kerner takes the trouble to explain the particle-versus-wave theory of light: "Somehow light is continuous and also discontinuous," he says. It's particles, and it's waves. It's two things at once, and every time we try to figure it out, understanding eludes us. Kerner then applies this enigma from the world of light to human beings. We can't always know whom we're talking to, and if we try too hard to pin each other down, we're likely to get it all wrong. In other words, quantum physics is the perfect metaphor for human behavior.
All this might be interesting, except we don't really see much in the way of human behavior here. These characters are slight. They're spies with little else in their lives to make them interesting. Even Hapgood doesn't do anything but worry about her work. There is her son, but he's at boarding school after all. Even the characters' spy problems feel minor when compared to today's terror-plagued world. Thus for all the trouble Stoppard goes through to build his carefully constructed metaphor (and for all the work we go through to follow it), it ends up not really meaning all that much in the context of this play. The fact that Hapgood can't understand her spies any better than we can understand light ends up being as meaningless as a long word problem.
All that being said, the Alley's production, directed by Gregory Boyd, will appeal to anybody who likes the slick bells and whistles common in today's television spy shows. Lots of suspenseful techno music covers the fast scene changes; frosted glass set pieces move silently across the stage; black leather and clever light tricks go a long way toward livening up the story. And Todd Waite makes an enormously appealing Russian physicist. It is his utterly charismatic performance that makes Kerner's poetic speeches about the secret life of light worth listening to.
But taken as a whole, Hapgood, which is meant to thrill even as it educates, lacks the humor, heart and elegance of most of Stoppard's work. And in the end it comes off like that student who sits in the front row knowing all the correct formulas. He might be the smartest boy in the room, but he's also the most annoying.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.