New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"The Hard Problem"
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

One thing to say about Tom Stoppard’s characters: they never stop talking in intellectual terms. But characters have feelings too, as the author proved in such stunners as “Arcadia,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern  Are Dead,” “The Real Thing,” “Hapgood,” “Travesties,” “The Invention of Love” and, of course, “The Coast of Utopia.”

But something is awry in Stoppard’s latest, “The Hard Problem.” Unlike his other works, the playwright does not integrate the emotional with the cerebral.

Hilary, the main character, searches for an answer to the hard problem of consciousness, whether it is our brain or our mind that is in control – and what’s the difference between them?  From Hilary’s religious viewpoint, morality does not dovetail with science. Computers can’t think; one has to be a person to be rational. Even then, we don’t always know why we act, but God does, she believes.

Puzzling whether the brain causes connections or just registers them, Hilary is drawn back to her guilt-ridden, life-altering decision to give her baby girl up for adoption 12 years ago.

When he finds Hilary kneeling by the bed, saying prayers, Spike, her lover, confronts her with Darwin, a scientist who was rational, not sentimental. But she’s beholden to Spike to prepare her for an interview with the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, where she has to juggle the atheistic Spike; Amal, a brilliant mathematician; randy boss Jerry; Leo, a hapless supervisor; and Bo, an ambitious, worshipful associate. How she paddles through these souls is braided into her own journey towards enlightenment.

If that sounds vaguely Buddhist and more than teleological, so be it. It would not be amiss to label Hilary’s path as one that leads to karma. Although that may be as far afield as Stoppard’s play itself, it’s as good an explanation as any.

The main topic seems to be the nature of altruism.  Do we act positively or is there always a motivation? Can we choose to act for the common good? Or selfishly as Hilary might have by giving up her infant? As for the brain, is it merely an organ, a combination of wired responses? Or does it make decisions before causing us to act? Is there a purpose to how we act or is it all random or is it dictated by something outside ourselves? (God, in Hilary’s worldview.)

However muddled the evening, Stoppard has not lost his touch for star-bright dialogue. Thanks to director Jack O’Brien, everything coheres as characters emerge with specificity. They are as human as possible, given the mouthfuls they’re assigned.

As Hilary, Adelaide Clemens fights her natural sensuality in puzzling out the distance between head and heart. Chris O’Shea is a seductive Spike, Jon Tenney a smarmy Jerrry, and Karoline XU an ambitious Bo. Eshan Bajpay is a self-assured Amal, while Robert Petkoff is an empathetic Leo.

Throughout his career, Stoppard has searched for the interactions inherent in human beings and the nature of consciousness. It’s an age-old problem, hard to figure out. Are we just a bunch of cells? Do we act innately or purposely? Will we ever know?

--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 7, 2018

Sign up for our mailing list