The olympian gods are no more, but artists still need muses. The unlikely muse for Tom Stoppard's play Hapgood was the late Richard Feynman, the eccen-tric American physicist and Nobel laureate whose books introduced Stoppard to the world of quantum physics. Feynman the genius was a virtuoso on the bongo drums, a master safecracker, a guy who did his equations at topless bars. All this is pure Stoppard. The playwright has been called cerebral, but his mind is a cogitating heart; it lusts for ideas. New York is getting a bracing dose of Stoppard, with the 1988 ""Hapgood'' at Lincoln Center, to be followed in March by his 1993 ""Arcadia.''
In ""Hapgood,'' the bizarrely sane world of quantum physics becomes a metaphor for the bizarrely insane world of international espionage. Written during the endgame of the cold war, the play is a theatrical cyclotron into which Stoppard tosses his colliding human atoms: Hapgood (Stockard Channing), the only woman spymaster in the business, Blair (Josef Sommer), her boss, Kerner (David Strathairn), a Russian physicist who's become a British agent, and assorted spylets.
Unlike a Graham Greene or a John Le Carre, Stoppard isn't concerned with espionage as a morality play. He sees it as the mirror of an increasingly indeterminate world in which values and the very concept of identity have become elusive and fragmented. On the surface the play is a Le Carre-like thriller: who's the turncoat who's been passing secrets to the Soviets? Everyone is suspect in a plot so dazzlingly complicated that it spins itself into a whirl of double agents, triple crosses, a spy who's really twins, a spy who pretends to be twins, lovers who don't make love, antagonists who make love. Kerner, the spy/physicist, describes the espionage universe in terms of electrons that can be in two places at the same time, that ""can go from here to there without going in between.''
In such a world, good and evil, truth and falsity are not solid Newtonian objects but Heisenbergian entities that change in the very act of being grasped. That's all very well if you're a hydrogen atom, but if you're a human being figuring out how to live, where do you turn? Stoppard provides an answer at the end, an answer connected to Hapgood's code name of Mother. For all his brilliance as the theater's foremost prestidigitator of language and thought, Stoppard is a conservative who, like Einstein himself, resists the idea that chance is the ""mother'' of reality. He's also a marvelous entertainer, and Jack O"Brien's staging, with scenic designer Bob Crowley's superlative use of Wendall K. Harrington's projections, is a careening ride through Stoppard's metaphysical fun house. In the sharp and savvy cast it's again clear that there's no American stage actress superior to Stockard Channing. Her smart, sexy, tough, tender spy can do anything that James Bond can do. And she has a license to think.