Chris O’Shea and Adelaide Clemens in ‘The Hard Problem.’ (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Here’s an easy problem: who could write a play at which a mainstream audience would sit still for an hour and 40 minutes while listening to scientists contemplating such questions as what constitutes consciousness; is altruism a cost-benefit consideration in disguise; what is God’s relationship to science; do computers have the ability to think; and, among other things, what is the basis for coincidence? The answer, of course, is Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia), the British playwriting brainiac who wrote The Hard Problem, an episodic, fitfully absorbing, brainteasing 2015 dramedy, his first play in a decade.
Now being given a smooth staging by Jack O’Brien at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, following earlier renditions in London and several American cities, The Hard Problem illustrates what Stoppard’s characters talk about by weaving it into the very fabric of their existence. Unfortunately, big ideas don’t necessarily translate into dramatic tension.
Stoppard’s heroine, three-dimensionally rendered by Australian talent Adelaide Clemens (TV’s Rectify), is Hilary, a psychology grad student, who competes against an Indian named Amal (Eshan Bashpay) for an enviable position at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, a think tank founded by an aggressive, American, hedge fund manager, Jerry Krohl (Jon Tenney).
Each gets hired, but for different jobs, Hilary to run the institute’s psychology division, Amal to predict market fluctuations for Jerry’s firm, which doesn’t quite work out when the 2007-2008 crash arrives. Jerry seems interested in brain science chiefly for its pecuniary advantages.
Five years pass and it comes to seem likely that Jerry’s prepubescent daughter, Cathy, is Catherine, the child Hilary had at 15 and then gave up for adoption. What, the play wonders, is the meaning of this coincidence, and does it have any relationship to Hilary’s belief, not only in prayer, but miracles?
Hilary and her brilliant Chinese-American assistant, Bo (Karoline Xu), design an experiment using 96 children to determine the source of altruistic behavior—selflessness or self-interest—by examining their relative responses, by age, to a woman receiving electric shocks. The fascinating results, though, come into question via the personal relationship of Bo to Hilary, again highlighting the problem of why people behave as they do.
Stoppard further complicates things by his depiction of Hilary’s sexual and intellectual relationship with Spike (Chris O’Shea), originally Hilary’s lover and teaching assistant. Eight years later, at a conference in Venice, she again hooks up, coincidentally, with Spike.
Things get even more intricate at a disastrous dinner party Hilary throws for Bo, Spike, Amal, a brain scientist named Ursula (Tara Summers), and Ursula’s Pilates-instructor girlfriend, Julia (Nina Grollman). The conflict between goodness and self-interest once more creates head-scratching consternation. An oddly unsatisfying resolution of Hilary’s Cathy dilemma concludes the action.
Stoppard’s highbrow palaver can sometimes get a bit dense but, in general, he inserts his ideas into accessible dialogue, including the occasional profanity, and with intriguing scientific anecdotes (particularly those about vampire bats and brainworms). If a word like “teleological” appears, it gets a catchy explanation. His characters, while superficially lifelike, are sufficiently interesting mouthpieces for what he wants to say. We don’t get answers to the issues deliberated, like “the hard problem” of what constitutes consciousness, but the explorations hold their own fascination.
David Rockwell’s minimalist setting, smartly lit by Japhy Weideman, evokes the characters’ high-flying world with stylishly selective units (including suggestive background images of Venice and London) and furnishings. The carefully choreographed shifts, accompanied by Bob James’s moody score, employ an ensemble of six nonspeaking actors.
But is it really necessary for them to be an omnipresent upstage audience watching scenes with which they have nothing to do? Since they’re all understudies for the principal characters, maybe this is O’Brien’s way of making sure they’re studying the parts they may one day get to play.
The Hard Problem isn’t first-rate Stoppard on the level of the recent Travesties revival. Even lesser Stoppard, though, will provide enough stimulation to make your brain feel it’s had a Pilates workout without moving a muscle.
The Hard Problem
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 W. 65th St., NYC
Through January 6
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.