HAPGOOD (Lantern): Rising to the challenge of a gleefully complicated spy story

McKenna Kerrigan as Elizabeth Hapgood and William Zielinski as Kerner in Lantern Theater Company's production of Hapgood by Tom Stoppard, directed by Peter DeLaurier. Onstage now through October 14, 2018. Photo by Mark Garvin.

McKenna Kerrigan as Elizabeth Hapgood and William Zielinski as Kerner in Lantern Theater Company’s production of HAPGOOD by Tom Stoppard, directed by Peter DeLaurier Photo by Mark Garvin.

(The following first paragraph is lifted from an essay I wrote years ago: self-plagiarizing may be the perfect technique for reviewing this play. That essay was published in Modern Drama under the title, “Blizintsy/Dvojniki Twins/Doubles  Hapgood/Hapgood.”)

Tom Stoppard’s play, Hapgood, is full of twins: British and Russian, real and imaginary, overt and covert, psychological and biological, nominative and designative (i.e., Joe and joe—in British spy lingo, a double agent).  In the duplicitous world of theater, where actors double—and triple—themselves, twinning is crucial.  In the duplicitous world of espionage, where agents double—and triple—themselves, twinning is crucial. The plot turns—and turns again—on two sets of twins who are double agents, on twin sets of secret information, on twin scenes. 

Lantern Theater’s production, directed by Peter DeLaurier, rises to the challenge of this enormously and gleefully complicated spy story which takes place during the late days of the Cold War. It’s 1980. It’s a waning battle; as the Spy Master sardonically comments, the British Secret Service, the KGB and the CIA are really just keeping each other business and ought to be sending each other Christmas cards. 

Elizabeth Hapgood (McKenna Kerrigan), is “Mother” to her minions, to her colleagues and Mamushka to her lover turned agent, her “joe,” whose name happens to be Joseph Kerner (William Zielinski).  She is also literally Mother to her son Joe (Charles LaMonaca/ Will Zielinski). 

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McKenna Kerrigan as Elizabeth Hapgood and Kirk Wendell Brown as Wates. Photo by Mark Garvin.

But Hapgood is not just a spy story, it’s also a physics story; Joseph Kerner is a world-class physicist since the Cold War was largely about the science of weapons.  Zielinski projects both warmth and bemused intelligence, but his Russian accent garbles some of this already-hard-to-comprehend information speeches, and it is a shame to waste the lovely monologue about an atom’s quantum leap explained by the poetic image of a moth in a cathedral. Theater and physics twin each other: the central fact of the wave/particle theory of light is that the outcome is always altered by the act of observing the motion and position of the atom—just as a theatrical performance Is always altered by the act of observing, the presence of an audience.

Complicating both the spying and the drama are the thuggish Ridley twins (Damon Bonetti), who bring  street smarts to a board game. Wading through the layers of lies and deceit are Hapgood’s friend Paul Blair (Christopher Patrick Mullen)—their emotional relationship isn’t made clear enough— and the American, Ben Wates (Kirk Wendell Brown) who navigates this very posh very English world, shaking his head, muttering, “You guys,”  which is quite quite different from “You chaps.” English and English are twins, too.

The first set (scenic design by Nick Embree) offers what seems to be five doors; this offers the promise of farce—or the promise of a shell game—two of many ways of thinking about the global world of “intelligence.”  

Stoppard has sometimes been accused of being all brain and no heart, and Lantern’s production may not give the heart its due; this is a very brainy play, but we should feel the complex emotional ties these people have to each other.  It is, nevertheless, an enormously entertaining evening and launches what promises to be a brave season of five heady shows at the Lantern.

[Lantern Theater at St. Stephens Theater, 10th and Ludlow streets] September 6=October 14, 2018lanterntheater.org

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was recently published by Methuen, and she has just finished an essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," due out in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.