Tale of suspense gives Broadway season needed lift

Pack of Lies Play by Hugh Whitemore. Directed by Clifford Williams. Starring Rosemary Harris, Dana Ivey, George N. Martin, Patrick McGoohan. A first-rate Anglo-American production of a superior British drama has come to the rescue of a flagging Broadway season. Hugh Whitemore's factually based ``Pack of Lies'' is a suspense tale with a difference. Instead of concentrating on the clandestine activities of the spies themselves, Mr. Whitemore opts for deeper implications. The new import at the Royal Theatre dramatizes the painful ordeal of an ordinary suburban couple whose home is requisitioned as the observation post for a counterespionage operation.

That is what happens in the autumn and winter of 1960-61 to the couple, whom Mr. Whitemore calls Bob and Barbara Jackson (George N. Martin and Rosemary Harris) of Ruislip, a London suburb. It appears that the Jacksons' good-hearted ``Canadian'' neighbors, Helen and Peter Kroger (Dana Ivey and Colin Fox), have caught the attention of MI5. After some mysterious phone calls from Scotland Yard, the Jacksons are visited by an urbane operative known to them only as ``Mr. Stewart'' (Patrick McGoohan). Ever so gradually, and with intimations that baffle poor Barbara, Stewart solicits their help. Before they quite know what has happened, the Jacksons have agreed to allow the authorities to station observers upstairs in their daughter Julie's room when the unaware teen-ager is at school. Stewart assures Bob and Barbara that the intrusion will be brief.

The ensuing emotional ordeal tells most heavily on the loyal Barbara. From defensive incredulity, she reluctantly comes to accept as persuasive the scraps of evidence that tie the Krogers to Gordon Lonsdale, the mystery man who visits them. The struggle to preserve the norms of friendship, particularly on the occasion of a Christmas party, creates almost more of a strain than Barbara can bear. As the surveillance drags on, the lies to which she has been subjected, and in which she is now involved, drive her to a bitter tirade against Stewart and what he has done to their lives and a happy relationship.

As the tormented Barbara, Miss Harris proves once more that she is an actress for all states of the human condition and feeling. She is the quintessential homemaker, the devoted wife and mother, the friendly and trusting neighbor. Her anguish is the more touching because her trust has been so complete. Whether getting breakfast, making a dress for Helen, or railing at Stewart, Miss Harris's Barbara commands admiration and sympathy.

In his belated Broadway debut, Mr. McGoohan portrays Stewart as the very model of a Whitehall civil servant, with the accent on civility. He is precise, articulate, even solicitous -- but absolutely determined to do his MI5 duty. When Stewart implores the Jacksons to continue cooperating, his entreaty is more of a command than a plea. He then explains that professionals like Lonsdale, the spy for whom the Krogers are transmitting naval secrets to the Russians, spend their lives deceiving people like the Jacksons. With the weight of Stewart's authority -- and the authority of Mr. McGoohan's performance -- the Jacksons' response is understandable.

Nor could the Krogers be more genuinely disarming. With all of her loud vulgarity, Miss Ivey's Helen is an appealing best friend, a good-hearted provincial married to an antiquarian book dealer. Peter Kroger is played with soft-spoken conviction by Mr. Fox as the one-time idealist turned Communist spy. (Peter's account of how it happened is one of the brief monologues with which Mr. Whitemore amplifies the text.) The performance staged by Clifford Williams, the Royal Shakespeare Company associate director, proves uniformly admirable. Mr. Martin's Bob Jackson is a devoted family man who nevertheless responds more readily than his wife to the Stewart overture. Tracy Pollan's amusing teen-age daughter, Julie, helps fulfill the author's purpose of establishing the everyday family atmosphere that the experience with espionage is to shatter. Kaiulani Lee has some quietly effective moments as one of the visiting counterspies, and June Ballinger plays her shadowy partner.

Ralph Koltai (scenery and costumes) has designed a duplex setting for the semidetached suburban house where this strange but true tale unfolds. The lighting is by Natasha Katz.

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