Actor-playwright John Hadden aims to peel back layers of mask-ulinity in solo show

John Hadden portrays both himself and his now deceased father, a former CIA agent, in "Travels With a Masked Man," coming to Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre on Sunday afternoon.

PITTSFIELD — What makes it so difficult for fathers to be honest with their sons?

In John Hadden's "Travels With a Masked Man," a two-character solo performance that will make a stop at the Colonial Theatre on Father's Day, the actor performs a series of dialogues between him and his late father, a former CIA agent, that not only seek to illuminate the elder's state secrets but also aim to explore the shroud of masculinity that often distances fathers from their sons.

Culled from 18 to 20 hours of interviews that Hadden had taped in 2003 in preparation for a book, the conversations between father and son begin with more concrete discussions of various countries' history and politics before moving into more abstract ruminations on the human condition.

"I think he actually wanted to have a record, especially what he had investigated about the Israeli [nuclear] bomb because he had been silenced, right and left, about 10 years of work he had done on it," said Hadden, 64, of why his father eventually divulged confidential information.

Such a disclosure was shocking to Hadden. The elder John, who died in 2013, had always been tight-lipped about the depths of his knowledge, even after Hadden had discovered his father's profession during a school event at age 16.

In May of 1970, parents were visiting their children at the Groton School, an all-boys boarding school then, in Groton, Mass. Hadden's had made the trip for the first time. At one point, Hadden found himself standing against a wall with the wife of one of his father's colleagues.

"The two of us were perhaps the most socially awkward people at this gathering," Hadden recalled.

The woman didn't know that Hadden was unaware of his father's line of work. She began talking about her husband and John's time together in the CIA. Until then, Hadden had assumed the elder John was a loyal U.S. Department of State official, one who vehemently disagreed with his son's anti-establishment views, particularly his opposition to the Vietnam War.

"That was partly why I was going to boarding school because the arguments had become too volatile," Hadden said.

They were also dishonest. For decades, the elder John deceived friends and foes alike, according to Hadden. This included mesmerizing them with tactics as varied as cleaning a pipe or making his eyebrows move in figure-eights as he spoke. "He would distract them. He would interrupt his own story to go off on a tangent so that by the time the difficult question came around, they'd forgotten what the question was," Hadden said.

After Groton, Hadden worked in carpentry and other trades before enrolling at SUNY Purchase, where he furthered his passion for theater, an ardor first developed when his father took him to shows in Salzburg, Austria as a young boy. In 1978, Hadden joined Shakespeare & Company, cementing his divergence from his father's path. But the elder John's suppressed stories still weighed heavily on his son's mind. Hadden wanted to write about them, so he boldly asked his father for permission to interview him for a book. He didn't expect a positive response.

"And then he just blew my mind by saying, `Sure,'" Hadden recalled.

The interviews took place at the kitchen table of his parents' home in Brunswick, Maine, where many of their fights had occurred over the years. Hadden ultimately promised not to publish the manuscript until after his father's death. In "Conversations with a Masked Man: My Father, the CIA, and Me," Hadden regularly inserts his own commentary between the bits of dialogue that are dominated by the elder John. In the theatrical version, Hadden has pared these expositions; there are now only about seven 30-second "escapes," Hadden said.

"I can't even take a breath," he said.

During the play, Hadden, 64, sits in a chair surrounded by a six-by-eight-foot picture frame. A beam of light shines on him. He faces the audience, using his voice and gesticulations to distinguish him from his father. For the "escapes," he stands up and moves in front of the light. He has performed the solo act about 20 times, he said, but he used to incorporate multiple actors.

"I think it just works a lot better [now]," said Reilly Hadden, John's 33-year-old son and a former actor. Unlike his father, Reilly doesn't have problems extracting information from his dad. "He was always very — too honest with me sometimes, but I think it was something he cared a great deal about," he said.

"I've shared more than he'd like me to share," the elder Hadden said. But for Hadden, this is a welcome shortcoming. Though not every father is a CIA agent, many still practice the same masculine repression of their innermost thoughts, according to Hadden.

"[With] World War II guys that we always hear, `They won't talk about the war.' I think they'd like to be asked, that they're burdened with the stuff. They don't want to burden their families with the horrors that they remember and their shame," he said.

Through his act, Hadden believes he can get more fathers to open up to their sons.

"The purpose of theater in general for me has become trying to do a performance about one thing or another in order to get people to say things that they have never said before," he said.