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. And 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 travel 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 is may be impossible to fully explain particle physics in words, in Hapgood, Stoppard surely has come closer than most in clarifying the subject – and he has done so with such linguistic and dramatic flair that even the most dyed-in-the-wool technophobe is likely to find the experience extremely enjoyable.
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. It is now being revived in an excellent off off Broadway production by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Wild Project. This latest production does Stoppard proud.
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 the agent we thought to be one person actually be twins or, conversely, might those we thought to be 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, as is her husband (in real life),Craig Smith, the Ensemble’s other co-founder and co-artistic director in his role as Blair. The other cast members were all splendid in their respective roles as well but my personal favorite was David Joseph Regelman who brought a delightful lighthearted charm to his double agent (or triple agent or quadruple agent) role as Russian, adroitly capturing both the ostensible and metaphorical aspects of his part.