The opening scene of The Hard Problem, Tom Stoppard’s latest play since 2006’s Rock and Roll, reminds you of the opening scene from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Passion. Two half-naked beautiful young people loll in bed, all aglow in afterglow and up for a chat.
In Sondheim’s case, the couple sings rapturously of their simple happiness and sexual thrall. Stoppard being Stoppard, student Hilary (Tessa Klein) and her tutor-lover Spike (Kyle Cameron) spar over neuro-biology, altruism, brain chemistry, and consciousness.
The “Hard Problem” of the title refers to the intellectual argument about thinking, or consciousness. Where did it come from and where does it happen in the brain? Is consciousness a matter of hard-wiring and evolutionary survival tactics or is it a divine spark?
That some things—like goodness and miracles, primarily—cannot be explained away by algorhythms and other predictive computations is the gist of Stoppard’s play, which is getting its area premiere at Studio Theatre under the crisp direction of Matt Torney.
Hilary, a praying sort with a guilt-ridden past, is on Team God. Although a brilliant researcher, she believes that goodness and consciousness are matters of the mind rather than the brain. Spike and his colleagues are on Team Rational, knowing that everything comes down to science and good “maths.”
When Hilary takes a position at the Krohl Institute—a not-altogether philanthropic endeavor bankrolled by Jerry (David Andrew MacDonald), who made a bundle with hedge funds—her beliefs are sorely tested, almost in the manner of a Christian martyr.
The Hard Problem contains the wit and merry wordplay we love about Stoppard. Who else can make you sit enraptured as characters explain neuroscience, how hedge funds work, the development of empathy and mathematical equations?
Instead of being dazzled by the ideas and brainy talk, The Hard Problem leaves you a bit cold, all showboating on scientific research bullet points. At times, you feel you’re being lectured to, rather than participating in the joy of intellectual discovery.
The character of Hilary (well-played by Klein) is meant to be our entrance into the play, our warm-hearted navigator through the chilly waters of academic research. Just in case we may miss that point, Stoppard has most every other character a little in love with Hilary—Spike, her professorial boss Leo (Martin Giles), old friend Julia (Emily Kester) and even her protégé, Bo (Nancy Sun), a mathematical genius.
Want to go?
The Hard Problem
closes February 26, 2017
Details and tickets
Even armored with all that emotional ammunition, you are not drawn to Hilary. For one thing, what the hell is she trying to prove? That miracles and goodness gloriously exist and are not freaks of nature? If that’s her bailiwick then what is she doing at a brain research facility? Why not a seminary?
And it seems like Stoppard is grasping at straws to make Hilary relatedly human, like making her be terrible at ordinary things such as cooking. Hilary even burns the coffee along with everything else domestic. But when you get to it, she’s really not a very good scientist either—her “maths” are poor, Spike reminds her, and so she leaves her equations to Bo, a serious miscalculation.
Her past—pregnant at 15 and giving the child up for adoption and endlessly wondering what happened to her—is too wind-tossed romantic for someone like Hilary, a diehard academic whose idea of pillow talk is hashing out the concept of consciousness and arguing theories.
Speaking of far-fetched, the coincidental miracle that befalls Hilary later in the play is difficult to compute, even for the believers in the audience. What are the chances, you think, and if this luck could be true, Hilary should run out and buy a lottery ticket.
Because the head and the heart are so unsatisfyingly integrated, the production comes off as perfunctory. The cast seems to be going through the motions and rarely connecting to each other or connecting the dots of scientific discourse. The one time the play leaps briefly to life is when Ursula (Joy Jones) jumps up from the dinner table, casually clocks Spike to shut him up, and then quietly plops down again to finish her wine.
Let’s be real here—even fair-to-middling Stoppard is better than a lot of things out there. The wordplay, the intellectual curiosity are impressive as usual—you just wish there was more mind, less brain.
The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard . Director: Matt Torney. Featuring Shravan Amin, Kyle Cameron, Martin Giles, Katie Beth Hall, Joy Jones, Emily Kester, Tessa Klein, David Andrew MacDonald, Nancy Sun. Set Designer: Debra Booth. Lighting Designer: Michael Giannitti. Costume Designer: Sarah Cubbage. Sound Designer and Composition: James Bigbee Garver. Production Stage Manager: Anthony O. Bullock. Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.3 stars