Posts Tagged ‘Alec Newman’

Review – Hapgood – Hampstead Theater

December 10, 2015

The Hampstead is right in its happy place with this productionl of Hapgood, a revival of a Stoppard work from the balancing point in his career where he was still riding the line between intellectual inquiry and entertainment in his plays. Written twenty years after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead but a mere five years before Arcadia, Hapgood comes from a richly productive time in Stoppard’s life where I imagine a little dalliance in something light seemed like a refreshing change. So for the audience, we get a fast-paced night of guns, deceit, and triple crosses, with some chewy lectures on particle physics that must have seemed zingily fresh when new but which come across as a bit quaint post-Constellations (I mean, who doesn’t know about Heisenberg and make jokes about dead cats in a box these days?). It’s idea for the Hampstead crowd, which I fancy considers itself up on intellectual concerns yet still desirous of entertainment whilst in the theater: they wants jokes that they can feel smug about laughing at – but they still want jokes.

Hapgood posits a single mother working for MI6 in charge of important operations as the cold war is winding itself up. We are given a few mysteries (none of which is how did a woman advance so far in those less-enlightened days; another is how did a “bit of rough” become an expert in the experimental application of dark matter?), most of which center around “who is loyal to whom,” with “whom” being either a country or (more interestingly) a person. The loyalties of the various spies within the agency are under scrutiny, and we, the audience, debate which of the various spies is loyal to which of their coworkers and which to the UK/US versus Russia. We are also given a mystery about an exchange of briefcases in a bathroom at the beginning of the show, and a delightful logic puzzle that introduces the concept of twinnage as a solution for someone being in two places at the same place; does it make the math work? Interval drinks while we debate.

Lisa Dillon has a great time playing top spy Mrs Hapgood, cheering her son on in his rugby games in one scene, repulsing ex-lover(s?) in a shooting gallery in the next. Fellow spy Blair (Tim McMullan) doesn’t seem nearly as well rounded by comparison, but his own woodenness was nicely rounded by the extravagant emotions of Russian physicist Kerner (Alec Newman). I suspect Stoppard cared more about his character than nearly any of the others, as he’s the one used to spout off most of the scientific blather; it seems simultaneously normal and somewhat boring to listen to someone discuss that passionately his work, and I think Stoppard must have wanted him to seem very real; in some ways more real than everyone else in the play. He is the one we are meant to observe; as we focus on him, the direction of all of the other (unobserved) particles becomes merely a question of proper equations, this relationship x this chemistry = this outcome.

Through a thirty-year lens, this play has become charming and nostalgic; politics and science and plays have all moved on since this was written, and it seems a cuddly little toy from a day when people thought these things really matters. Stoppard doesn’t care about making his plays watchable anymore; I look to Scarlett Thomas when I want to think about the underpinnings of the world. But for a good night out – at just under 2 1/2 hours running time – Hapgood does deliver the goods.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Decmeber 8, 2015. It continues through January 23rd. Might I suggest you consider the Caryl Churchill play at the National if you really want something intellectually challenging: it’s a bargain at £15 a pop.)

Review – The Motherfucker with the Hat – National Theater

July 20, 2015

Although this play did little to attract me at the start – something American with a swear word in the title – I was convinced to make the effort to see it by Fiona Mountford’s glowing review, at the level of exuberance that causes me to drop the paper, skip the review, and just get directly online to book a ticket. It helped that it was 1:45 with no interval, which means to me that if it were actually bad or irritating, well, it would all be over quite soon with a chance of somehow salvaging my night (or in this case, my afternoon – the matinee was over in plenty of time to see a show that evening).

The plot of this play is as follows: there is a man not long out of prison, who has a girlfriend he suspects of infidelity (with the man with the hat). They’re both poor and Puerto Rican, and grew up together in the crappy New York neighborhood the pay is set. Jackie (Ricardo Chavira) is trying to clean up his act and stay out of prison – find a job and stick to the AA program, that kind of thing – while Veronica (Flor de Liz Perez), well, clearly has some substance abuse issues (we watch her snorting lines in the first scene) and might have some questionable ways of funding that hobby. Or maybe she makes her money hairdressing; I couldn’t be sure. And it didn’t help that Boyfriend’s AA counselor Ralph (Alec Newman) was busy advising him (and us) that Girlfriend was an unreliable skank who was a problem in Boyfriend’s life: gosh, yeah, maybe the drugs do cloud your judgment. Whatever her story is, though, Boyfriend is positive that Girlfriend has not been faithful (his evidence seems good), and he’s furious, and if he can’t get his temper under control, it’s back behind bars for him.

While this play is ultimately a bit slim (it doesn’t really have enough to justify an interval, so it’s well chosen to run it straight through), there’s no avoiding the powerful reality of the characters that populate it. Jackie’s dilemma hurts. We can feel the power of his affection, but also the tides of the other emotions sweeping through him – the conflict between keeping control and living a life in which he can have respect for himself. I was convinced that not going for violence was going to permanently break him, yet I was invested in him enough that I also desperately wanted him to be able to avoid breaking his terms of probation. Then there was his girlfriend: fiery-hot tempered, clearly impulsive, sexy as hell, and so obviously madly in love with him that seeing them split up was killing me. Jackie’s character was more clearly drawn for us by the presence of his extremely odd cousin, Julio (Yul Vasquez), whose description of their life together as children was obviously necessary backstory but also created the crucial element that made us, the audience, root for Jackie so hard, Julio could have just been throwing pom poms into the audience. The collective of the three of them smashed apart the shallow caricatures of Italian immigrants peopling Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge: in some ways, these people were fighting many of the same problems (money/loyalty/fidelity) but with a richness that made them so much more than wax figurines populating a morality tale.

The morality issues are pretty strong in this play, and it’s a very modern morality that washes over the underpinning questions of Veronica’s reliability: it’s the morality of AA, telling people to take it one day at a time, telling them to turn to God for support, telling them to let things go …. and maybe telling them that, since they need to forgive themselves and learn how to feel good about themselves, that maybe they don’t have to try to act to make a better future for themselves or others. It’s a little hard to describe but simultaneously very new-agey and completely Machiavellian. I was shocked at how much ugliness Stephen Adly Gurgis managed to find in his few characters, all seeking to lead their lives according to precepts that they firmly believed in; and ultimately, the only one I felt I could stand up for was the guy society saw fit to put in jail. That gave me more to wonder about at the end of the play than almost anything else. It was, really, a good show that well rewarded the 100 minutes I invested in it.

(This review is for a performance that took place June 25th, 2015. It runs through August 20th.)