Axiomatic, my dear Watson: Count on Tom Stoppard to be clever.
The first act of Stoppard's "Hapgood," the spy thriller that opened Wednesday at the Doolittle Theatre, is too clever by half--so clever that you never figure out what's going on. His second act is another story. The fog lifts, the sun comes out and all that plot, counterplot, subplot and overplot clear and coalesce--enough, anyway, so the characters at last take shape and we can actually begin to tell the good guys from the bad. Maybe.
Stoppard's first scene (after an equally clever prologue) is a miracle of revolving doors, twin identities, discarded towels, substitute briefcases and clockwork action signifying--what? It sets us up for the puzzle to follow. Puzzles are Stoppard's forte, his passion and obsession, but nothing again quite matches the virtuosity of that beginning. The remainder of Act I is dedicated to spicing the sauce and thickening our confusion.
As you must suspect by now, "Hapgood's" plot is not designed to be told and shouldn't be even if it were (assuming one could keep track). So to be generic, let's just say it concerns a British intelligence agent, Mrs. Hapgood (Judy Davis), involved in a convoluted international spy scheme that goes awry. The play, rife with agents, subagents, supervisory agents and double/triple agents, is dedicated to unraveling the reasons why.
It is also dedicated to letting Tom Stoppard express his views on just about anything from world politics to God, Einstein, Immanuel Kant and the seven bridges of Kaliningrad. There are elements of romance, a certain James Bondian sexuality (more suggestive than consummated), sharp encounters, brisk exchanges, all delivered in staccato witticisms ("I wasn't seeking asylum, I was seeking an IBM") or in densely packed, entertaining discourses--particularly those of Joe Kerner, played by one Roger Rees in a virtuosic performance that's a far cry from his innocent Nicholas in "Nicholas Nickleby."
It's all tricky stuff, directed by Peter Wood with what might best be described as brisk composure, that lies somewhere between a John le Carre novel and a lecture on the laws of physics.
Obfuscation is the idea. If that smacks of didacticism and a certain dryness, that's how much of "Hapgood" also turns out to be. But intriguing. The play's difficulty (and perhaps its ultimate vindication) is that it insists on those intelligent mile-a-minute dissertations that tackle politics to philosophy, dissolving in a kiss, a reprimand or a gunshot.
It's the constant uncertainty of this script that keeps it alive.
But Stoppard may have carried inventiveness too far in this piece. All that stands between "Hapgood" and disaster is the author's brilliance and that's not always enough. The astute shenanigans of Act I leave an audience breathless and unsatisfied at the intermission. Stoppard always has something interesting to say, but there is such a thing as too much, particularly when ideas and language become diversionary tactics.
An audience, in this case, can't always quite keep up.
Davis is a strong superagent. Her intelligence fairly bristles, though too often at the expense of a little heart. It's partly the way the role is written. She softens considerably in a second act that allows for some trompe l'oeil fun and--finally--some honest-to-goodness emotion.
James Lancaster turns in a multidimensional Ridley, the man who works with Hapgood but would rather bed her.
Except for some opening night uncertainty from Richard Lawson (as an American agent), others in the cast look smart in brisk clear-cut, matter-of-fact performances. They are Simon Jones, Andrew Laisser, Morgan Strickland, Bryan Torfeh and Tim Donoghue. Chris Demetral, remembered for his recent portrayal of an autistic boy in the Taper, Too's "Making Noise Quietly," again gives a refreshingly unself-conscious performance as Hapgood's son, showing a self-possession well beyond his years. (He alternates with David Tom.)
Carl Toms has designed the show, with sets that are a triumph of simplicity and imagination, using a magnified map of London to open the play and cover scene transitions. David Hersey did the intricate lighting. This is the last production of the Center Theatre Group Ahmanson 1988-89 season and the first to take place at the Doolittle, as the Ahmanson Theatre is being outfitted to receive "The Phantom of the Opera" in May.
It's a welcome development. One shudders to think what "Hapgood" would have been like, lost in the Cavern on the Hill.
At 1615 N. Vine St. in Hollywood, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., with matinees Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends July 9. Tickets: $17.50-37.50; (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300.