'The Hard Problem': Theater Review

Paul Kolnik
Chris O'Shea and Adelaide Clemens in 'The Hard Problem'
Feels like a homework assignment.
1/6/2019

Adelaide Clemens plays a young scientist attempting to define consciousness in Tom Stoppard's latest brain-teaser, having its New York premiere at Lincoln Center.

When the most dramatically urgent line of a play consists of the request, "Explain consciousness," you know you're watching something written by Tom Stoppard. The latest work from the celebrated playwright is a typically brain-stretching intellectual exercise trading more in theoretical concepts than flesh-and-blood drama. In the past, Stoppard has been able to balance these elements to commanding effect with such acclaimed works as Arcadia and The Real Thing. Unfortunately, The Hard Problem, receiving its New York premiere in a Lincoln Center Theater production three years after its London debut, represents a minor effort unlikely to have the lasting appeal of those predecessors.

Stoppard here attempts to be more accessible, at least by his standards, by having his intellectual arguments frequently expressed by attractive young characters. Chief among them is Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), a psychology student who in the play's opening scene is seen lying in bed with her lover and college tutor Spike (Chris O'Shea). Not that the two are up to anything sexier than a windy argument about the nature of altruism as practiced by vampire bats. Spike is particularly discomfited when he sees Hilary kneeling in prayer, which of course leads to an extended discussion about God and whether people are inherently good. In Stoppard's world, this is what passes for post-coital conversation.

Years later, Hilary gets hired at the Krohl Institute for Brain Sciences, a scientific think tank founded by ruthless (is there any other kind?) hedge fund owner Jerry Krohl (Jon Tenney). He has a young adopted daughter, Cathy (Katie Beth Hall), who we eventually learn has the same name and birthdate as the daughter Hilary gave up for adoption as a teenager. The Krohl character seems to have wandered in from another play entirely, one about financial rather than scientific machinations.

Hilary's assignment at the company is to find an answer to the so-called "hard problem" of defining consciousness. She and her assistant Bo (Karoline Xu) conduct an experiment testing the nature of compassion in order to explore whether it is innate or learned, but the seemingly revelatory results may be suspect. Meanwhile, Hilary's colleague Amal (Eshan Bajpay) uses his analytical skills to predict stock market fluctuations, but his number-crunching proves to have a fatal flaw.

As you can tell, the play juggles plenty of plot elements. But they are particularly hard to digest as presented in short, choppy scenes lacking clarity and narrative momentum. Not to mention that the dialogue is far less plot-driven than rhetorical, the characters engaging in enough stiffly rendered intellectual arguments to fuel a dozen TED Talks. As if realizing that audiences may become restless, director Jack O'Brien (who won a Tony in 2007 for his staging of Stoppard's historical trilogy The Coast of Utopia for LCT) occasionally has the sexy lead performers remove their clothing in gratuitous fashion.

O'Brien's direction is awkward in other aspects. The numerous scene transitions are too elaborate and cutesy by far, with the ensemble enthusiastically pitching into the action as if participating in a contest. The quasi-classical score by Bob James seems designed to accompany the completion of a difficult crossword, as if listening to it will somehow make you smarter.

The large ensemble does what they can with their schematic roles, although they are mostly unable to breathe life into characters that essentially are mouthpieces. And although Clemens (Sundance Channel's Rectify) is appealing as the young heroine desperate to inject God into the human fabric, she, too, is hamstrung by her character's lack of an inner life.

In this age of dumbed-down theater, it seems churlish to complain about a play intended to make you think as much as feel. The hard problem is that The Hard Problem never fully balances that theatrical equation.   

Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse, New York
Cast: Eshan Bajpay, 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, Karoline Xu
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: Jack O'Brien
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Music: Bob James
Sound designer: Marc Salzberg
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater