WILLIAMSTOWN — The Cold War was no fun to live through, but the protracted East-West staredown yielded one dividend at least: It kindled the imaginations of great writers such as John le Carré, whom we automatically associate with the espionage thriller genre, and Tom Stoppard, whom we don't.
If you see the Evan Yionoulis-directed production of Stoppard's "Hapgood'' at Williamstown Theatre Festival — and you should, because it's fascinating — prepare to feel lost for much of Act 1.
The 1988 drama opens with a stretch of bewildering intricacy, even opacity, during which the playwright deliberately keeps the meaning of what is being said and done just beyond our grasp. Had there been a thought bubble above my head during these scenes, it would have read: "Huh?'' But hang in there, because in a thoroughly gripping Act 2, Stoppard's series of interlocking puzzle boxes begin to make sense, even as they continue to furnish surprises.
There's another notable aspect to "Hapgood'' for which Williamstown theatergoers need no preparation whatsoever: an exquisite, subtly virtuosic performance by Kate Burton. This is the 18th season at the festival for this splendid actress, who has tackled everything from "Hedda Gabler'' to "Cyrano'' to "The Front Page.''
In "Hapgood,'' which unfolds in and around London in 1987, Burton plays the title character, a British spymaster so cerebral that she plays chess without a board. Now Hapgood faces a somewhat analogous challenge in her intelligence service, where someone has apparently been passing top-secret scientific research findings to the Soviet Union. As she races to find out who it is, Hapgood's efforts are complicated by a desire to protect her young son.
Her professional orbit consists of Blair (Reed Birney), a by-the-book intelligence official who has a deep rapport with Hapgood but frets over her
rule-breaking ways ("There's a little anarchist inside you,'' he tells her); Wates (Victor Williams), an American CIA officer, very quickly at loggerheads with the Brits; Ridley (Euan Morton), an arrogant and hotheaded young operative; and Kerner (Jake Weber), a Russian double agent, long in the employ of the British but suddenly under suspicion.
The playwright further underscores the notion of duality by adding twins into the mix. Less happily, he makes Kerner the vehicle for those show-offy flourishes to which Stoppard has always been prone. This is especially so in a scene where Kerner delivers a disquisition on particle physics, arguing that intelligence officers are like electrons in that they "can be here or there at the same moment.'' It's an interesting notion, but Kerner goes on about it at such eye-glazing length that the play nearly comes screeching to a halt.
On balance, though, both the pace and the dialogue are bracingly fleet. Yionoulis is no stranger to Stoppard; she directed a 2005 production of "The Real Thing'' at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. In "Hapgood,'' the Nikos Stage is often steeped in shadow as she expertly conjures the paranoid, who-can-you-trust atmosphere of Cold War espionage.
The production is a family affair: The lighting design is by Donald Holder, a Tony Award winner for "The Lion King'' and "South Pacific,'' who is married to Yionoulis. The original music is by Mike Yionoulis, the director's brother; it pulses and whooshes ominously, creating an aura not just of suspense but of whirling chaos barely held at bay. The set by Christopher Barreca and Christopher Heilman is dominated by a forbidding bank of black doors through which characters rapidly appear and disappear.
As with the best of le Carré, "Hapgood'' delivers a satisfying two-fer. You can revel in the trappings, tradecraft, turnabouts, and general hugger-mugger of the traditional spy thriller: Suit-wearing men bustle about carrying briefcases, guns are fired, and Burton even wears a khaki trenchcoat. But you also get to immerse yourself in the big-picture Stoppardian play of ideas. Take the way Kerner seizes on the concept of the "sleeper'' agent to riff on the question of true identity, suggesting that "at night — perhaps in the moment before unconsciousness — we meet our sleeper. The priest is visited by the doubter, the Marxist sees the civilizing force of the bourgeoisie, the captain of industry admits the justice of common ownership.''
Starting as early as 1966's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,'' Stoppard's characters have often been forced to wander through what T.S. Eliot, in his poem "Gerontion,'' called "a wilderness of mirrors.'' In "Hapgood,'' that wilderness takes a form that is geopolitical and personal. The achievement of Burton's performance is that she makes us keenly feel the relative stakes of both.