The Hard Problem Review: Tom Stoppard Explores Consciousness and Challenges Ours

The hard problem in Tom Stoppard’s latest erudite play, his first full-length work in nearly a decade, is the challenge facing those who study the brain: How do scientists account for the mind – for consciousness or morality? But there’s also a hard problem for theatergoers who attend (study?) a Tom Stoppard play: How do you take in the playwright’s impressive intellect, dazzling verbosity, and intricate plots without being intimidated or confused by it all?

Luckily, one of these problems has an easy solution

“The Hard Problem” launches into the mind-body debate from the get-go, when we see Hillary (Adelaide Clemens), a young graduate student in psychology, arguing with her slightly older but hot tutor Spike (Chris O’Shea.) They will soon become lovers and eventually colleagues, but their essential contrary positions never waver; only their examples do. Spike believes that the brain is just a very complicated computer and that human behavior can be explained through evolutionary biology. This is true even for a mother’s love; Spike cheekily cites Raphael’s painting “’Madonna and Child,’ which I personally call “’Woman Maximizing Gene Survival.’” People are in effect programmed to behave the way they do: There is no such thing as altruism — the altruist is getting something out of her act.
That Hillary disagrees is presented most visibly when, after they first sleep together, he’s surprised to catch her kneeling by the bed, praying. “With consciousness, with the mind-body problem,” she says, “the God idea shoves itself to the front like a doctor at the scene of an accident, because when you come right down to it, the body is made of things, and things don’t have thoughts.” In a game of chess with a computer, for example, only the human being gets upset about  losing. How can a strictly biological model of human behavior ever explain sorrow?
Hillary, we learn, feels sorrow aplenty. It’s why she prays — for the child she gave birth to at age 15, giving her up for adoption.
Hillary is chosen for a prestigious job for which she feels unqualified at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Jerry Krohl (Jon Tenney.) Jerry winds up employing in his hedge fund Amal (Eshan Bajpay), the more qualified candidate that Hillary beat out for the institute job.
The plot suddenly advances five years, and we see Jerry cursing out Amal, but treating his own adopted daughter very sweetly. It’s a mark of Stoppard’s brilliance that both of Jerry’s behaviors are not just casual, but seeds that the playwright plants to nurture the plot and allow his points to sprout. The twists in the plot, which are full of coincidences (that the characters occasionally call miracles), are better left unspoiled. But it’s worth offering just a glimpse into the Amal subplot to suggest how clever Stoppard is. Amal’s computer program predicts the collapse of the stock market (presumably the Great Recession of 2008), which infuriates Jerry – because Amal told an analyst about it. “Do you know what brings that money through the door?” Jerry says to Amal. “Confidence. Belief.” In other words, the stock market in a way reflects the same dichotomy between the rational and the unknowable.
Jack O’Brien, who’s something of a Stoppard specialist (having directed both the Coast of Utopia trilogy and the Invention of Love on Broadway), directs “The Hard Problem” briskly, using a fine and large cast — not just nine principals but another six “ensemble” members, who mostly just move the furniture during set changes. O’Brien also employs a team of award-winning designers. David Rockwell’s set is futuristic and minimalist, but there are large colorful backdrops of New York and Venice (the site of a science conference that Hillary attends.) There’s soft original piano music by Bob James. These appeals to eye and ear seem intended to compensate for the strain on our brains.   But my trick for most appreciating “The Hard Problem” – which, I’ll confess, I employed as well with satisfying results in recent productions of Stoppard’s “Travesties” and “Indian Ink” – is to read the script. “The Hard Problem,” as in many of Stoppard’s plays, works as well as dramatic literature as it does as a theatrical event.

Photos by Paul Kolnik

The Hard Problem

Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse

Written by Tom Stoppard; Directed by Jack O’Brien

Sets by David Rockwell, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Japhy Weidman, sound by Marc Salzberg, original music by Bob James

Cast: Eshan Bay, Adelaide Clemens, John Patrick Doherty, Nina Grollman, Katie Beth Hall, Eleanor Handley, Olivia Hebert, Sagar Kiran, Chris O’Shea, Madeleine Pace, Robert Petkoff, Tara Summers, Jon Tenney, Baylen Thomas, Kim Wong and Karoline Xu

Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission

The Hard Problem runs through January 6, 2019

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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