theater review

Theater Review: A Soft-Edged Production of Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem

From The Hard Problem, at Lincoln Center. Photo: Paul Kolnik

The playwright Tom Stoppard has a reputation for intellectualism — to put it bluntly, for genius — that precedes him like a motorcade at this point. People tend to step out of the way, either in awe or in veiled annoyance. The ones I’ve met who aren’t along for the ride point to his prodigious wit as a barrier. All brain and no heart, they say. I’ve always argued that the heart is right there in Stoppard’s plays, much more exposed than it might seem to be at first glance. His characters talk about complicated things because they’re interested in complicated things — physics, poetry, politics, philosophy, advanced theories of everything from psychedelic rock to landscape gardening — but no matter how smart they might be, they’re only people. Yearning, hurting, illogical, infuriating — driven by, to paraphrase one of them, the attractions Newton left out. At their best, Stoppard’s plays are an alchemy of head and heart. Their dialogue keeps big ideas spinning like so many plates, and their action is all silly, sorrowing animal. Ideally, I like to spend almost my whole evening at a Stoppard play having an invigorating mental workout, and then, in the last minute and a half, realize I’m weeping.

That’s not quite what happened to me at The Hard Problem, though the rangy curiosity, emotional wisdom, and under-the-patter humanity are still there. Directed with a bit too much poignant piano music for my taste by Jack O’Brien (who’s also directed Stoppard’s Hapgood, The Invention of Love, and the sweeping Coast of Utopia trilogy at Lincoln Center), The Hard Problem marks Stoppard’s first new play in almost a decade. Rather than a symphony or an opera, it’s a chamber piece, a variation on some of his preferred themes, that favors straight conversation and structural craft over layers of theatricality (the play begins with a discussion of the prisoner’s dilemma, and the whole plot leads to an enactment, indeed a defiance, of that popular piece of game theory). Its ideas are, as ever, rich and varied, while its dramatic scope is relatively modest. And while it may seem paradoxical, I think a sparer production — and one that remained a little less sentimental for a little longer — would have moved me more. O’Brien is gamely feelings-forward in his approach to the play, but he’s making it more treacly than it need be. As his overlarge ensemble (there are six actors whose only job is to move furniture between scenes and benignly observe the play’s action from the background) enters at the top of the show to one of those warm piano melodies, scripts in hand and smiles on faces — as if to say, “Here we all are, ready to tackle our own hard problem!” — the effect verges on schmaltz. This framing device and the show’s many actor-driven transitions set a tone that’s meant to be warm and humane — a balance for the story’s scientific content — but that tips the production’s hand: O’Brien wants us to know the play has a heart, and he doesn’t let that heart creep up on us.

Still, scene to scene, Stoppard’s writing feels alive and engaging as ever. If The Hard Problem is less expansively theatrical than a sister play like Arcadia, it’s got a self-awareness to it that suits the complex matter it has in hand. The persistent question of brain vs. heart isn’t simply an external matter of style but the substance of the story itself. The play’s heroine, Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), is a psychology student who wins a prestigious doctoral candidacy at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, a flashy research nonprofit paid for by a hedge-fund billionaire — think the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with a more stereotypically American-alpha-male namesake (as Jerry Krohl, Jon Tenney doesn’t get all the way to chomping cigars, but he does his fair share of shouting directives about the market, replete with profanities, into cell phones). Hilary is something of an outsider at the mostly hard-biology-focused institute. For one thing, when the play begins, she’s a 22-year-old getting her degree at Loughborough (i.e., not Cambridge) and “maths” aren’t her strong suit. She’s also, though hardly anyone knows it, grieving the loss of a child: When she was 15, she gave up her infant daughter Catherine for adoption. The little girl “was possibly the last ‘shame’ baby,” Hilary eventually tells Spike (Chris O’Shea), her university math tutor and, over the years, her on-and-off lover. “Nowadays the babies are mostly taken away from mothers who neglect them or can’t cope, but shame is pretty much extinct.”

But it’s not Hilary’s background, which she keeps tucked under a neatly groomed layer of professionalism, that sets her apart at Krohl. Nor is it even her relative shakiness with high-level mathematics. It’s her approach to the play’s titular hard problem — that is, the question of consciousness. If the brain is a machine — a really, really, really sophisticated computer — then what’s the equation for a feeling, caring, suffering, self-aware self? Where does, to use a term that would horrify most of Hilary’s fellow Krohl-ites, the soul come into it? “I don’t go looking for an argument with science,” Hilary insists to Spike, who’s squarely and obnoxiously Team Math-Will-Eventually-Solve-It (he’s amusingly hard-bodied for a numbers whiz and has the easy, fashionably pessimistic arrogance of a pretty, smart young man for whom nothing has ever had particularly high stakes, and so everything, including the hard problem, is just a brain teaser). “But with consciousness — with the mind-body problem — 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.”

Spike is mortified at Hilary’s willingness even to consider the ‘G’ word — either ‘g’ word. “Good” is just as dangerous. Goodness — decency, morality, whatever — is simple evolutionary biology, argues Spike: “It’s about survival strategies … Competition is the natural order. Self-interest is bedrock. Cooperation is a strategy. Altruism is an outlier unless you’re an ant or a bee.” Spike — who’s smart and savvy and more than 50 percent asshole, and so sees a world made up of machines that function the way he does — is interested in patterns. It’s the outliers that interest Hilary. Knowing that her child is somewhere out there in the world, the question of what, if anything, makes us love and protect our fellow human beings is more than a lucrative game for her.

At a glance, the core argument of The Hard Problem seems to shake out along gender lines. The play’s women are mostly ruled by their better natures and its men mostly by the Ayn Rand school of evo-bio outlined by Spike. Amal (Eshan Bajpay), a Cambridge biophysicist who loses out on the Krohl doctorate to Hilary, ends up working directly for Jerry’s hedge fund, cranking out market predictions and buying $7,000 watches. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Bo (Karoline Xu), a brilliant young mathematician from Shanghai, has intentionally left her capital management job to join Hilary in the lab: “The money was good … but it wasn’t good money, you know?” she tells her new boss, whom she desperately wants to please and for whom she soon starts to feel something more than professional admiration. It’s frustrating to watch Hilary and Bo spend their time on Spike and Amal, but of course that’s part of Stoppard’s point: We’re more predictable and less logical than we’d like to think, and the size of our brains doesn’t account for half the strange, familiar, needy things our bodies do — especially where other bodies are concerned.

Also part of the point is that it’s the outliers that are interesting. Our addiction to clean data and our desire to make meaning out of disorder drive us to gloss over points, and people, that don’t fit with the narrative we’ve got in our heads. Selfless kindness — which several of The Hard Problem’s characters might call evolutionary error — is both human and divine: If the soul lives anywhere, it lives in the glitches on the graph. Hilary’s boss Leo (Robert Petkoff) is no standard hard-science cynic: He hires her instead of Amal specifically because he’s interested in “minds,” not brains — and Petkoff gives him a scrappy, sparky humanity, a real curiosity and affection for his fellow human beings that’s built on more than an eye for what’s profitable. Meanwhile, Ursula (Tara Summers), another Krohl researcher who’s dating an old school-friend of Hilary’s — Julia (Nina Grollman), the institute’s in-house Pilates instructor — can be just as dismissive and data-driven as Amal or Spike. Her “idea of altruism” is a worm that sacrifices itself in its biology-programmed drive to get eaten by a cow, in whose guts the parasite can complete its life cycle.

If it sounds like The Hard Problem is a talky play, it is. It’s also, despite its relatively large cast of characters, not a fully fleshed-out ensemble piece. Hilary is our emotional focus — she’s the soloist in the concerto, and we’re following her melody. Clemens is lucid and appealing, especially as the character comes into herself, but the necessary subtlety of her pathos as she realizes that her daughter might have miraculously walked back into her life feels a little drowned out by O’Brien’s scoring of the play as a whole. With such warm and fuzzy transitions — “Venice!” sighs the ensemble romantically at the end of a scenic shift that lands us in … Venice — Hilary’s ability to drive the play’s delicate emotional crescendo comes in for some competition. She’s not an explosive character, and it’s not an explosive play: With Hilary and with the hard problem, it’s a question of the unknowable ocean beneath the observable surface. We don’t hurt or soar as much as we could at the end of Stoppard’s play, because we’ve been lilting so much throughout. The playwright’s ideas, in all their multiplicity and inquisitive vivacity, still sparkle, though the front-loading of feeling in the production ends up rendering The Hard Problem a little easier than it might be.

The Hard Problem is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

Theater: A Soft-Edged Production of The Hard Problem