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The Hard Problem
Written by Tom Stoppard; directed by Jack O’Brien
Performances through January 6, 2019
The problem for many with Tom Stoppard is that he’s too brainy, too witty, too clever—but he’s always been more than that. The obvious example is The Real Thing, but for every pyrotechnic intellectual exercise like Jumpers or Travesties, there are also plays like Arcadia, Indian Ink, Rock’n’Roll and The Coast of Utopia, each a miraculous balance of heady brain candy and emotional resonance. Hearteningly, his latest, The Hard Problem, can be added to that list.
Stoppard’s heroine, psychology student Hilary, begins working at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science to deal with the ostensible “hard problem” of the title: human consciousness. As always with Stoppard, there’s more that meets the eye, ear, brain and—of course—heart. Hilary’s life and work are colored by her having given up a baby for adoption when she was a teenager. Its consequences are shown in a parallel plotline about the head of Krohl, an ugly American who yells into his cell phone and at his cowering underlings; even if one guesses where these parallel plots will arrive ahead of time, it doesn’t detract from Stoppard’s ability to insightfully explore how Hilary’s complicated feelings over that incident have made her the inquiring, passionate young woman she is today.
Stoppard also allows Hilary to be, unapologetically, a believer. After sex, she kneels to pray at the side of the bed, and if these occasions are amusing (she’s “caught” by her lover despite wanting to stay unseen), they engender typically Stoppardian conversations about the flexibility of belief and the inflexibility of those who don’t believe, even when it comes to science. While the play doesn’t quite make compelling cases either way, thought-provoking ideas are put forth without condescension, as Stoppard effortlessly juggles several paradoxes as dilemmas for Hilary to experience if not fully resolve.
At 100 minutes, The Hard Problem—captivatingly staged by Jack O’Brien on David Rockwell’s sly, endlessly mobile sets—is the shortest Stoppard play I’ve seen since Hapgood, the extraordinarily convoluted spy drama starring Stockard Channing staged by Lincoln Center Theater nearly a quarter century ago. I would have preferred if Stoppard had fleshed out his secondary characters more, but that would have also taken the focus away from Hilary, who is played by Adelaide Clemens—the young Australian actress who was so persuasive and likably authentic in Kenneth Lonergan’s play Hold on to Me Darling at the Atlantic a few seasons back—with authority and a charming ordinariness. Her complex and varied performance is the heart of The Hard Problem.
Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
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