The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2015. Since then, Stoppard has tweaked the play. Director Jack O’Brien has given it another rendering for its New York presentation at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
The production intrigues, heavy with scientific and philosophical intent. When the epiphany arrives at the conclusion, heartfelt emotions stir us. Then we marvel at how Stoppard threaded scenes and characterizations into a lovely fabric of hope.
As with all Stoppard’s plays, The Hard Problem deals with questions. These include questions about existence, fate vs. coincidence, goodness vs. evil, and divinity. He poses these questions against the backdrop of current scientific debate about the brain and consciousness, which characters refer to as “The Hard Problem.” Neuroscientists suggest the brain creates consciousness. Others see things differently.
The questions are heady. But Stoppard humorously frames them with events that illustrate the arguments and set them in motion.
As the play opens, graduate student Hilary (Adelaide Clemens) and her math tutor Spike (Chris O’Shea) debate the impulses of egoism versus altruism, as a preamble to her receiving math help. Hilary has applied for a research slot at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. Spike reviews the math on the model she plans to submit in her application. After they have sex, Spike notes that Hilary prays. As a scientist and atheist, he remains shocked that she believes in God. Quips fly back and forth with a brief debate of His existence.
Then Hilary raises “the hard problem” of consciousness. Unable to counter her adequately, Spike diverts the conversation to helping her with her math. But they continue to quip about morality, goodness, parenting, and mother-love, Spike offering Darwinian explanations for each. She leaves Spike with two comments that slide over him, but that we remember for future reference. One thing she prays to God for is forgiveness, and her prayers help her. Also, she affirms that to get this plum research position at the Krohl Institute, she needs a miracle.
In these initial scenes lie the conflicts and themes of The Hard Problem. As the intriguing events develop, the characters themselves highlight aspects of their arguments. And as the story spools out, Stoppard demonstrates how the scientific set, loosed from morality, ethics, and concerns about divinity or consciousness unleash themselves upon the culture. On the other hand, Hilary and those who believe in being good and evolving toward altruism, act with noble intentions and equanimity toward others. And other characters meld altruistic and egoistic behaviors.
For example Amal (Eshan Bajpay), a mathematician, adheres to Spike’s scientific perspective, as does Urusla (Tara Summers). Each shows more than a share of egoism and a lack of fulfillment within. Leo (Robert Petkoff), who selects Hilary for the research position, Bo (Karoline XL), Julia (Nina Grollman) and Cathy (Katie Beth Hall) manifest finer behaviors. Jerry Krohl (Jon Tenney) compartmentalizes both.
Hilary’s perspective and her beliefs eventually lead her to evolve productively. We discover why she prays for forgiveness each night. And gaining the research position she desired leads to a revelation that exceeds coincidence. In a beautiful and satisfying culmination, Stoppard validates Hilary’s assertions about consciousness. Indeed, these reveal a realm of divine goodness that Hilary seeks. The miraculous brings her comfort and peace.
In portraying Hilary, Adelaide Clemens reveals an iron vulnerability and truthful innocence. She smacks down Spike’s manipulations with assurance. Stoppard’s characterization of her strength of will, her openness to the universe, her belief without religious dogma spilling out obtrusively, are the high points of this empathetic, good individual. Indeed, we root for her. When the blessings come to Hilary, we celebrate with her.
The ensemble, adroitly shepherded by director Jack O’Brien, work admirably as Hilary’s foils, including O’Shea’s Spike and Bajpay’s Amal. Tenney’s Krohl intrigues with his perfect admixture of kindness to his daughter and cruelty to his underlings.
Kudos go to to David Rockwell (Sets), Catherine Zuber (Costumes), Japhy Weideman (Lighting), Marc Salzberg (Sound), and Bob James (Original Music).
The Hard Problem runs at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater until 6 January. Especially if you appreciate Stoppard, do not miss this revelatory new work. Tickets are available online.