Spy Vs. Spy

Mary Poppins without the sense of fun? Charity Jones as the stubbornly maternal spymaster Hapgood

Mary Poppins without the sense of fun? Charity Jones as the stubbornly maternal spymaster Hapgood

The opening night of Tom Stoppard's Hapgood was a week later than anticipated. "It was the set," explained the Jungle Theater's publicist. "It just got ahead of us!"

Jungle artistic director Bain Boehlke is often so house-proud when it comes to his set designs that he takes photographs of them and hangs them in the Jungle lobby. Here, he has outdone himself, crafting a series of large boxes, each about the size of a portable urinal, which his actors and stagehands spin into place. When the lights rise at the play's opening, voilà! the boxes are stacked neatly side-by-side, revealing a tiled façade, lined up to form a convincingly grimy changing room in a London bathhouse.

It is here that the protracted opening scene of Hapgood plays out, a sequence that owes as much to the daffy chase sequences in Scooby Doo as to the dreary British spy stories that inspired this play. A sweatshirt-clad man shaves, peering into a mirror as a series of mystery men enter the bathhouse, exchange briefcases, and exit, followed by British spies in flowing overcoats. At the end of the scene, one very tight Speedo will be revealed, one briefcase filled with secrets will turn up empty, a growing number of spies will turn out to have been identical twins, and one British spook will accidentally tip his hand, showing himself, in all likelihood, to be a double agent.

At the center of these spy-movie high jinks is the character of Elizabeth Hapgood, the agent in charge of this particularly vexing case. Charity Jones plays her here with brisk, commanding mannerisms and an exceedingly clipped English accent. Jones's Hapgood is stubbornly maternal: Her agents call her "Mother," even when one, a shallow cad named Ridley (played with a swagger and with tousled forelocks by Alex Podulke), openly lusts after her. Jones is a regular at the Children's Theatre Company--the program for Hapgood cites more than 60 credits at the CTC, with this Jungle play seeming like a rare recent foray into adult theater. The CTC frequently encourages actors to create large-gestured, superficial performances, but Jones here is small-gestured and anything but superficial.

Hapgood, as written, could be the very essence of chilly patronization. When her son loses a set of keys, she instructs him to create a grid containing all of his movements during the day, and then pick through the grid with the thoroughness one might bring to a crime scene. But Jones endows this exchange with a wry, gruff affection. Indeed, this is Jones's most frequent attitude, a sort of condescending adoration that she levels at everyone. This goes for the two men she is sleeping with (a Russian turncoat, played as a chatty intellectual by Phil Kilbourne; and her own superior, played with affable mannerisms and a wheezy accent by Michael Tezla) and to the CIA agent assigned to observe this case (Shawn Hamilton).

Jones's performance has just the right ring to it. Stoppard's play, despite its spy-movie plotting, is earnestly, sometimes ponderously, about the complexities of character. His Russian spy babbles on about physics, comparing human behavior to that of subatomic particles. A beam of light will behave in an absolutely consistent manner until it is observed, he explains in a series of protracted (and slightly tiresome) lectures, and then will suddenly behave in another manner altogether. The same rule goes for the richly contradictory Hapgood. Jones must play a woman with a no-nonsense demeanor who regularly bends her company's rules: Her son incessantly calls her on a red phone intended for private conversation with the Prime Minister; and she has a bad habit of sending postcards signed with her own name while in foreign countries under cover.

As the set spins around her, Jones seems to be spinning with it, until at the end, in keeping with the play's incessant twinning, we return to the scene of the crime, with an entirely new, strangely ambiguous character in tow. Jones has played her role with such a wealth of contradictions that we cannot be sure that this new character isn't just another of the spies under Hapgood's command.