Hapgood, produced by Six Elements Theatre at Nimbus Theater

HapgoodA man faces the audience, standing at a sink downstage center. He unhurriedly applies shaving cream, shaves, and ignores a considerable amount of coming and going behind him in this public swimming pool locker room. (It is CIA agent Ben Wates, played with nice subtlety by Song Kim, but no one knows this yet.)

With this beginning scenario, the link between real – and ordinary – life and the bizarrely created world of Cold War-era espionage is established. There may be men in trench coats carrying (matching) briefcases, walky-talkies slipped in and out of pockets and even the flash of a gun now and then, but it’s all just activity, in the end – a high-stakes game with a questionable point.

So says Tom Stoppard’s play, Hapgood, produced by Six Elements Theatre at Nimbus Theater. Like the game of espionage, the story is stacked in layers of mazes built on betrayals (real and imagined), sets of twins (real and imagined), and a convoluted belief in the secrets they both protect and pass on to enemies (real and imagined). It gets complicated.

To his credit, director Justin Alexander has managed to keep the complexities of this plot from overwhelming the interesting characters and their personal relationships, which is what keeps the audience engaged to the end.

An able cast, headed up by Jenn Sisko as Elizabeth Hapgood, head of British intelligence, keeps the relationships-in-flux afloat among all those words. Stoppard loves a good, entertaining rant (Reagan-era Star Wars technology, the absurdity of the CIA’s and Secret Service’s mission), which gives the play its backbone, but the playwright seems to care far less about the characters he’s put on the stage who must deliver his ideas. This is no small matter. In fact, we do care about the two central characters, amoral though they may be, and are rewarded with a satisfying – and beautifully rendered, in this production – denouement.

There are a raft of British agents and underlings, all cogs in the larger wheel, but one agent, named Ridley, becomes particularly circumspect. Zac Delventhal in this role holds his own and displays an aptly puzzling persona alongside Blair’s (James Tucker) higher ranking status in Hapgood’s office. Tucker was by far the easiest to hear, understand and follow among this cast, giving us a clear-cut character and purpose.

Although Sisko gives us a convincing Hapgood – smart, cool, but not without a heart – we had a difficult time hearing all her lines, and unfortunately it was sometimes during key revelations. I could say the same for Delventhal. But there was certainly an interesting chemistry between these two characters – and actors.

Joe Kerner (Philip D. Henry), the Russian double agent (or triple, or quadruple agent?), is also a physicist and finds the behavior of electrons an apt metaphor for solving the unknowns in the spy game. He’s also the character providing the most damning arguments concerning the Americans and the Brits vs. the Russians, shredding spy novels about the period at the same time.

An added challenge is the play’s construction in short scenes in varied locales. Alexander’s set changes, involving folding flat-sized box units on casters and small decorative touches, were choreographed to wonderfully clichéd “spy music” and, for the most part, were pretty entertaining in their own right.

I found the blocking, stage business and characters mannerisms quite minimalistic, and while I very much appreciate the restraint shown in this production (it could have died a slow death if played too broadly), I think there was opportunity for more “flesh” on these sturdy bones.

All in all, this is an interesting play, a thoroughly pleasurable performance – all produced by a brave, small theater. I do hope that you will take it seriously, and I encourage you to put it on your calendar before it closes May 2.


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