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"The Hard Problem" Gets Addressed at Lincoln Center

One of the most exciting events of the current theatrical season is surely the New York premiere production of Tom Stoppard’s intriguing new play—his first since 2006’s Rock ‘N’ RollThe Hard Problem, at Lincoln Center Theater, which I saw on the evening of Friday, December 7th.
The author is arguably the greatest living playwright in the English-speaking world and in recent years there have been superb productions of several of his works including extraordinary local premieres such as the epic trilogy The Coast of Utopia and Rock ‘N’ Roll—both produced by Lincoln Center Theater—as well as wonderful revivals of Arcadia and Travesties. His newest opus has been eagerly anticipated—despite the unusually mixed reception of the National Theatre’s London production directed by the talented Nicholas Hytner—while Lincoln Center’s version is helmed by the gifted Jack O’Brien who has directed several Stoppard plays including the remarkable Coast of Utopia .Here he favors a more minimal approach—with set design by David Rockwell—eschewing the dazzling and elaborate stage machinery of Coast of Utopia and his recent production of Macbeth, also at Lincoln Center, but this lends The Hard Problem a more modest ethos, which is matched by its apparent substance—it seems less ambitious than the other works to which I’ve adverted.
The Hard Problem portrays a young, idealistic psychologist named Hilary—sensitively realized by Adelaide Clemens who has previously appeared in New York in a play by Kenneth Lonergan—with views that in the prevailing climate are decidedly heterodox, who is fortuitously hired by a research institute. Stoppard is widely noted for his tendency to use his plays to articulate complex, even technical concepts—such as chaos theory in Arcadia or Hegelian philosophy in the first play in Coast of Utopia, Voyage—and here he similarly focuses on the issues concerning consciousness, i.e., the relation of mind to brain, as well as such germane topics as evolutionary psychology, altruism, natural teleology, and other subjects current in materialist circles.
In highlighting the intractability of accounting for mentality, agency, and morality in scientific terms, Stoppard seems to favor a thesis of divine providence, shared by his female protagonist, perhaps alluding to the interesting theological argument from reason intimated by Thomas Nagel in his stimulating book, Mind and Cosmos. These themes intersect illuminatingly with the writer’s, to my mind, somewhat dubious politics—he voted for Margaret Thatcher—that has included, in Coast of Utopia, allegiance to Alexander Herzen in his rejection of historical laws as against Karl Marx. (It is this strand of thought which seems to explain his active anti-communism, or at the very least, anti-Stalinism.) However, it’s significant that Stoppard has admitted that although he aims to be “fair” to his characters—the inspired documentarian Frederick Wiseman has interestingly used the same language to describe his responsibility to the individuals in his films—he was nonetheless not “fair” to Marx in that play.
Although I hold no brief for philosophical naturalism, I wonder if The Hard Problem might not have been more powerful dramatically if the author had resisted taking sides and had given Hillary’s opponents more compelling rebuttals to her arguments for God, free will, moral realism, and so forth. But this is nonetheless an affecting—if especially elusive—play that clearly demands more than one viewing. Also, the creators are assisted by an able cast of mostly unknowns, including among others: Chris O’Shea as Hilary’s slightly caddish, cynical tutor and sometime lover; Jon Tenney as the millionaire founder of the institute; Karoline Xu as a fellow researcher that falls in love with Hilary; and Eshan Bajpay as Hilary’s fellow hiree and sometime rival.
One hopes that Stoppard’s eagerly awaited next play will arrive much sooner than has The Hard Problem.

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