Tom Stoppard's 'Hapgood' Crackles With Literary Repartee

Stockard Channing deftly delivers play's witty dialogue


Play by Tom Stoppard.

Directed by Jack O'Brien.

With Stockard Channing and David Strathairn.

At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.

At the beginning of Tom Stoppard's ''Hapgood,'' there is a scene set in the locker room of a public pool in which several characters rush on- and offstage, portentously picking up and dropping off briefcases, with a musical soundtrack that would do justice to any spy movie. We don't really understand what exactly is going on, but we presume that the playwright is going to use his dark satirical sensibilities to send up the thriller genre.

That is not the case. A few digressional passages aside, ''Hapgood'' (a 1988 play, previously produced in London and Los Angeles) is a fairly conventional secret-agent yarn that pales in comparison to something like ''The Russia House,'' for which Stoppard wrote the screenplay. The complicated plot, in which nothing may be quite as it seems, involves double agents, the kidnapping of a top agent's child, and twins.

But what you'll remember far longer are those digressions in which the characters expound wittily on such topics as the Strategic Defense Initiative and particle physics.

That said, it must also be pointed out that the production, directed by Jack O'Brien in fluid cinematic style with background music, scenic projections, and all kinds of effects, is quite entertaining. Stockard Channing, playing Hapgood, a tough bureau chief who must deal with such crises as the possibility of a traitor in her midst and her son's soccer game, gives a confident performance that is hugely enjoyable.

Also quite excellent is David Strathairn, playing a Russian physicist, now working for the West (or is he?), who also happens to be the father of Hapgood's child. Strathairn has the lion's share of the best speeches, and he makes the most of them.

Other standouts include Josef Sommer as Hapgood's boss and David Lansbury as one of her best, albeit insubordinate, agents.

The playwright may or may not want us to keep up with the myriad plot complications that turn ''Hapgood'' into an intricate game, but if he doesn't, it isn't clear what exactly he is attempting. The play is not satisfying as a puzzle because we never quite feel that we are playing with all the pieces.

A plot development in the second half, in which Hapgood utilizes the services of her less-sophisticated twin sister to ferret out a double agent, certainly feels strained. But it does give us the opportunity to savor the delicious Channing in not one but two roles.

Stoppard's gift for dialogue has not deserted him, and the play fairly crackles with the kind of literate repartee that is all too rare in the theater, or anywhere else for that matter. And this top-notch cast makes the most of it.

But it comes as a disappointment, especially after a work like ''The Real Thing,'' which explored human issues in sophisticated and moving ways, that the playwright is once again resorting to mere cleverness. Perhaps Stoppard's ''Arcadia,'' set to open this spring at the Lincoln Center, will be more fulfilling.

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