BOTTOM LINE: This is a remarkable tour de force - on one level, an intricate tale of foreign espionage, much in the manner of a John LeCarre spy novel. On another, a wonderfully intellectual explication of the seemingly inexplicable nature of particle physics. And I enjoyed it immensely on both levels.
Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, once remarked that "Nobody understands quantum physics," and in that he was surely correct. The inherently counterintuitive and paradoxical nature of the subject is such that it cannot possibly be explained fully in words. How, after all, can light be both particle and wave, changing its very nature depending simply upon who looks at it and how? How can something be in two places at the same time? How can a particle move from one place to another without traveling between the two? How can Schrodinger's Cat be both alive and dead? The conundrums proliferate. And there really are no certain common-sensical answers.
And yet, while it may be impossible to fully explain particle physics in words, in Hapgood, Stoppard surely has come closer than most in clarifying the subject. The play's conceit is in its use of the mechanisms of international espionage as metaphors for the imponderables of particle physics. If we cannot understand how a sub-atomic particle can be in two places at the same time (and we really can't), can we understand how a secret agent can be in two places at the same time? Might one agent actually be twins or, conversely, might those we think are twins actually be one and the same person? If we cannot comprehend how light can appear to be both particle and wave, ostensibly changing its very nature depending solely upon how we look upon it, might the same thing be said of a Russian spy? Could he be a Russian spy as perceived by his Russian handlers and a Western double agent when confronted by his Western handlers? Must he be one or the other, or might he actually be both at the same time?
The entire cast does a first rate job. Elise Stone, co-founder and co-artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, is terrific in the title role of Hapgood, director of the Western spy agency. Craig Smith, Stone's real-life husband and the Ensemble's other co-founder and co-artistic director, is also great in his role as Blair. The other cast members are all splendid in their respective roles as well, but my personal favorite is David Joseph Regelmann who brings a delightful lighthearted charm to his role as Russian, a double (or triple or quadruple) agent; Regelmann adroitly captures both the ostensible and metaphorical aspects of his part.
Stoppard originally wrote Hapgood in 1988 as the Cold War was winding down, and then revised it in 1994 for its debut at Lincoln Center. Stoppard writes with such linguistic and dramatic flair that even the most dyed-in-the-wool technophobe is likely to find the experience extremely enjoyable. And this enjoyment is only magnified by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble; their current revival, playing at The Wild Project, certainly does Stoppard proud.
(Hapgood plays through December 12, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Performances take place at The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street (between Avenues A and B). Tickets are $25.00 and are available by calling 212.352.3101 or by visiting www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org.)