When is a Russian spy not a Russian spy but a cheery housewife and valued friend? And how is she found out? And, good grief, how did all this come about?
"Pack of Lies," which came to the Royale last night, is a homey spy story, a domestic drama taking place in a London suburb in the winter of 1960-61. But don't expect a Hitchcock thriller. Hugh Whitemore's tidy little play is concerned, in broad terms, with the invasion of privacy and the severing of a true-and-false friendship.
The Jacksons and the Krogers, middle-aged couples, live across the street from one another. They're great friends, especially the women, and the earthy, solicitous Helen Kroger (Dana Ivey) is forever popping in on Barbara Jackson (Rosemary Harris) with happy talk and thoughtful gifts for Barbara or her schoolgirl daughter, Julie (Tracy Pollan). There are also occasional little parties at the Jacksons. But never on weekends.
One evening, a suave member of British intelligence named Stewart (Patrick McGoohan) turns up to ask the Jacksons if they'd mind, really, if he stationed a female observer in Julie's room to keep an eye out for a motorcyclist, a KGB official who's been spotted in the neighborhood weekends, and to see whose house he visits.
It belongs, of course, to the Krogers, both case-hardened Soviet agents who fled New York when the Rosenbergs were caught and now pose as Canadians. Through weeks of increasing distress and growing suspicion, Barbara becomes hopelessly saddened with the realization that they've all been living lies, and that she's lost her only real "friends" when the Krogers are nabbed.
The fact that this is based on a true happening, as both the program and McGoohan, in one of the play's several asides, point out is really of no consequence. All that matters is whether it works. And that is largely dependent on the skill of the actress playing Barbara in exacting our sympathy. Luckily, Harris, unlike another actress I saw in this role last year in London, is versatile enough to make the plain and efficient homemaker whose daily routine is upset believable and affecting.
The two other major roles are Stewart, played with marvelous aplomb by an impeccably dressed and mannered McGoohan, and Helen, given a forthright account by Ivey that, nevertheless, can't strain our credibility over Helen's ability to carry off her duplicitous life so convincingly unless Barbara is a thoroughgoing ninny.
George N. Martin is the very image of a comfortable and compliant householder, willing to help out the government. It's he who, in an aside at the finish, fills us in on his wife's untimely death of a heart attack and the exchange of the Krogers for British prisoners. Colin Fox is Peter Kroger, who delivers military secrets either by short wave or in volumes that are part of the antiquarian book business he runs from his home.
Pollan is spirited as the daughter whose studies are interrupted by the watchers (Kaiulani Lee and June Ballinger spell each other at the window). Clifford Williams, who staged the work abroad, has done so again, and very smoothly.
In the end, "Pack of Lies" amounts to an ironic study of a loss of friendship, leaving behind a sadly bewildered woman. On its own quiet terms, it succeeds.
There are many kinds of treachery. In some ways they all demand different prices. At times the treachery is unexpected, and the price unsuspected.
But instantly to the good news. With Pack of Lies, which opened at the Royale last night, London's West End once more showed its facility at coming to the aid of an ailing Broadway when such aid was most sorely needed.
Hugh Whitemore's absolutely engrossing play is based on a true spy story that rocked Britain in 1960. It was not the usual British story of upper-class espionage by estranged homosexual radicals, but a plainer tale of infiltration by actual KGB agents.
The details are almost irrelevant. A Russian by the name of Lonsdale, posing as a playboy businessman, bought Royal Navy radar secrets, and had them transmitted to Russia by two other agents, pretending to be a Canadian bookdealer and his wife, the Krogers, who lived in the Thames commuter town of Ruislip.
MI-5, the British Secret Service, gets wind of the scheme, and, to catch the complete spy-ring, sets up a surveillance point in a house opposite the Krogers.
A perfectly simple spy operation. But - and there is never a good play without the right but - the neighbors, called the Jacksons by Whitemore, although that name was made up, happened to be the Krogers's best friends.
They liked them. They walked into each others kitchens, they remembered birthdays, got slightly squiffy together at Christmas. They were friends.
There is no real suspense. Jackson is a minor civil servant, and both he and his wife know they have to obey the law, have to be loyal to their country.
And even if they didn't recognize this, the point is gently hammered to them by the supercilious MI-5 operative, who wears an Eton tie, talks with the accent of command, and is oppressively polite. And steely.
Yet it hurt. It hurt that their friends should have told them this whole, convincing tissue of lies, the details of lives that never happened and people who never existed.
Then - worse than this - their own deception started to hurt. The Jacksons were now the ones who were lying, were letting spies into their own house to peep across at the comings and goings of people to whom they had offered and from whom accepted friendship.
The political issue is plain, and even the moral issue at most only partly cloudy: the Krogers had, after all, broken the rules of common friendship. But the personal issue, the sleaziness of the involvement, the meanness of the act - this was the kind of thing the Jacksons had to live with. And Mrs. Jackson nearly broke.
Whitemore unfolds his play with the matter-of-fact lack of ceremony of a documentary - which, in unimportant part, it is. But he permits his central characters explanatory monologues during the action, which adds a depth of reality to the play's naturalism.
It helps show the characters and illustrates Whitemore's theme of very ordinary people placed under extraordinary and unforeseen stress. A stress impossible to rationalize in terms of duty or patriotism. And a stress so historically irrelevant that virtually no one reading the newspaper story of the spy-bust would give it even a casual first thought, let alone a second one.
Whitemore has a neat hand with unvarnished dialogue that has the voiceprints of actuality to it, and Clifford Williams's staging is similarly impeccable in its English suburban detail.
And here the designer Ralph Koltai (funny to think that only a week ago I was admiring Koltai's monumentally Veronese ballet designs for Romeo and Juliet) takes equal pains at that sort of authoritative authenticity of background we associate with British TV.
The acting throughout places no personality barrier between character and audience. Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Jackson is almost rhapsodically commonplace.
I have seen her in dozens of roles from Desdemona on, but never so nakedly, prosaically honest. She is truly heartbreaking in the pain of her crucified dignity.
Patrick McGoohan, before he found television, was one of the most gifted actors of his generation. His performance in Ibsen's Brand is still on my mind a quarter of a century after the event.
This, his belated Broadway debut, is no such performance, but his craggy authority and high-pitched nerviness still ironically recalls the actor he never became.
Dana Ivey makes a most convincingly gregarious spy, and George N. Martin, puzzled and depressed by the tricks of fate, is a picture of probity confounded.
It is amazing how well Pack of Lies holds the interest, even though you know the outcome, there is no mystery, and scarcely any suspense.
But it has ordinary people going about their extraordinary business caught perfectly in the focus of a play's prism. And that, and that alone, is much more than enough for an evening of dynamic theater.
Hugh Whitemore's ''Pack of Lies,'' the new play at the Royale, tells a cold war spy story about KGB agents and purloined NATO secrets, but its author won't settle for entertaining the audience with anything as trivial as a suspense yarn. This is a play about the morality of lying, not the theatrics of espionage, and, in Mr. Whitemore's view, lying is a virulent disease that saps patriots and traitors alike of their humanity.
The playwright, who has the aspirations but not the skills of a Graham Greene or John LeCarre, may be too high-minded for his own good. ''Pack of Lies'' - which is adapted from a real-life spy case of the 1960's - comes across as a terribly polite English attempt at a Lillian Hellman melodrama; it's too flimsy and low-keyed to support its weighty polemical message and yet too pretentious to cover its ideological bets with cheap cloak-and-dagger thrills. What Mr. Whitemore does is allow some terrific actors the opportunity to shine in the sweat generated by their characters' many betrayals.
The evening's most compelling figure is Rosemary Harris, who gives a superlative performance in the lead role of Barbara Jackson - a perfectly ordinary, perfectly nice middle-aged housewife in the drab middle-class London suburb of Ruislip. When we first meet her in the autumn of 1960, she is puttering about her anonymous home, fussing happily over her doting husband (George N. Martin) and her mildly rebellious teen-age daughter (Tracy Pollan). By the time winter arrives, Barbara might as well be a cancer victim. The habit of lying has turned her into a quivering, tear-stained wreck who can hardly finish a sentence without vomiting in her kitchen sink.
What has infected Barbara's soul is an unexpected visit by an English intelligence agent named Stewart (Patrick McGoohan). The agent brings the shocking news that the Jacksons' best friends and across-the-street neighbors, the Krogers, are not the jolly Canadian couple they've always appeared to be, but may instead be Soviet operatives. To catch the Krogers (Dana Ivey and Colin Fox), Stewart commandeers the Jackson household as an undercover surveillance post. But Barbara instinctively rebels against the idea. Angry as she is to discover that her closest friends have duped her from the day they met, she still feels more loyal to them than she does to the cold official bloodhounds who ask her to help spin their own web of duplicity.
Barbara succumbs to her Government's plea nonetheless, and, in the play's first stirring moment (at the Act I curtain), Miss Harris makes the chilling most out of her latent, sinking realization that her lovely neighbors really are spies: The blood drains from the actress's round, cheery face, even as she keeps chattering neighborly pleasantries to Miss Ivey. After intermission, Barbara unravels entirely under the strain of a grief she describes as ''a dead weight'' - and Miss Harris drifts into nervous collapse in disconcerting stages. Her eyes, voice, posture and, finally, her hands surrender their spirit as the character's conscience cracks.
If the supporting figures are less commanding, that's because they don't seem to have troubled consciences at all. Even so, the performances, under Clifford Williams's flawless direction, usually keep them alive. Miss Ivey's boisterous Mrs. Kroger has a particularly eerie Act II moment, when she rises from a couch with an involuntary shudder conveying her dawning, unspoken realization that she, too, could be betrayed. Mr. Martin, as Miss Harris's congenitally weak-kneed husband, and Mr. McGoohan, an icily silver fox of an intelligence technician, are ideally cast, as are Mr. Fox, Miss Pollan and, in the role of Mr. McGoohan's assistant spook, Kaiulani Lee.
Without this company, ''Pack of Lies'' would probably be hard to take - and, even with it, there are dull stretches to go along with the script's gaping substantive loopholes. In Act I, the author takes far too long to establish both his story and the humdrum domestic atmosphere: The play only perks up when the actors periodically double as narrators to provide the plot and character exposition that is lacking in the innocuous scenes proper. Mr. Whitemore further uses these monologues to elevate the play's flat language - often by tossing in fruitily portentous descriptions of the weather in which, for dramatic purposes, a rainstorm can be likened to ''the end of the world.''
Mr. Whitemore - who wrote ''Concealed Enemies,'' last year's television mini-series about Alger Hiss - also cuts important dramatic corners. No matter how many times we're told that the Jacksons and Krogers are close friends, that friendship is never credibly conveyed on stage: There's so little intimacy between the couples to start with that we're not as jolted as we should be when that intimacy proves a sham.
Nor is there any reason (aside from sticking to Ralph Koltai's evocative single set) for Mr. Whitemore's failure to take us into the Krogers' living room. We're easily as curious about their private conflicts as we are about the Jacksons': Surely they have paid their own price for betraying friends and country. But the spies' behavior is explained (and, by default, condoned) only by a single, last-minute biographical paragraph invoking such inevitable buzz words as ''the Depression'' and ''the Rosenbergs.''
By caricaturing history so glibly, Mr. Whitemore completely abdicates his intellectual authority to argue or substantiate his case that, as Barbara eventually puts it, informing on spies is ''the same rotten game'' as spying itself. Like so many other docudramas, ''Pack of Lies'' is a pack of simple, appealing half-truths - elevated by honest, high-powered actors to the persuasiveness of fact.