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The Hard Problem

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 19, 2018

Chris O'Shea and Adelaide Clemens
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Getting your head around playwright Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem, opening tonight at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, is a bit like trying to pin down one of artist M. C. Escher's disorienting drawings that challenge your perspective with every shift of your gaze. Looked at in one way, the play can be viewed as the kind of witty/intellectual/philosophic excursion that made Stoppard's early reputation with the likes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Travesties. But if you tilt your head just a bit, you will discover another play under the surface, one with a soft and tender heart that relates the story of one character's search for redemption.

Stylistically on the choppy side, with many short scenes and transitions, The Hard Problem seems to be aiming for, but does not quite reach the perfect blend of intellect and emotions that Stoppard achieved with his masterful Arcadia. Nevertheless, the play's 85 minutes are well spent in parsing one of the great puzzles of all time. What is that thing we call "the mind?" How is it that we can do all manner of tests and measurements on the brain and yet we still cannot begin to understand human consciousness? Oh, we can theorize and argue about it, offer up natural and preternatural and religious explanations, but to date we have been unable to apply our tools of science to make the least bit of headway. To quote Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

A lot of the action takes place among the high achieving, ambitious, and competitive employees of the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. Its founder, Jerry Krohl (Jon Tenney) is mostly interested in the more practical side of things, especially how brain science can be used to predict human behavior. The more information you have access to, he believes, the more you can stay ahead of everyone else, a theory he wants to apply to gaming the system of high finance and stock trading.

Stoppard's well-known skill at cleverly mounting cerebral discussions with style and humor is very much in view through the evening. Yet, if you pay attention, you will observe there is something else happening along a parallel path to these mostly male-dominated conversations. In another corner of the Krohl Institute is a small subsidiary that is being funded to study "the hard problem" of getting a handle on what makes us tick. Are were merely the product of genetic programming and evolution, or is there something deeper going on?

This is the realm of the "soft science" of behavioral psychology. For this side of the equation, the play focuses on a young woman named Hilary (a terrific Adelaide Clemens), who quickly becomes a rising star in her branch of the field. The more we can filter out the noise coming from the strutting show-offs who surround her, the more we can see that Stoppard has another, quieter story to tell. Hilary, it seems, is looking for a higher truth, one where goodness and altruism and even absolution are as real as anything Darwin or Mendel ever came up with. Unlike Jerry, who believes that "coincidence" is a word we use when we simply have not gathered enough hard data, Hilary has spent much of her life believing in and seeking the ultimate of coincidences, a miracle that will free her of a burden she has been carrying for many years.

A real strength of the play is that Hilary never comes off as being out of place with her peers. Most of what drives her personally is subsumed under her work in behavioral psychology. She gets along well with her peers and her supervisors, and has an on again-off again romantic/sexual relationship with one of the men, the charming but also dickish Spike (Chris O'Shea, whose equally strong performance makes for a fine contrast to that of Ms. Clemens' Hilary.) She is also surrounded by women who, in clear contrast to the men, are supportive of and friendly with one another, providing the play with yet another layer of meaning.

Director Jack O'Brien keeps the play's many transitions of time and locale from becoming too confusing through the use of swiftly changing sets carried in and removed by a well-oiled ensemble, who move across the theater's open design to the accompaniment of Bob James' original music.

In the end, what sticks is that Mr. Stoppard seems to have been working through a profound truth. Yes, being clever and funny and intellectual can be very theatrical, but the answer to "the hard problem" may simply be a matter of listening to your heart.

The Hard Problem
Through January 6
Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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