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Off-Broadway Review—Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem”

The Hard Problem

Written by Tom Stoppard; directed by Jack O’Brien

Performances through January 3, 2019

 

Adelaide Clemens (right) in Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem (photo: Paul Kolnik)

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.

 

The Hard Problem

Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

lct.org

"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.

"Gloria: A Life": Feminist Activist Christine Lahti Channels Feminist Activist Gloria Steinem

 

In a superb, don’t miss performance, stage, TV veteran, and Oscar-winning film star Christine Lahti is starring as her mentor and friend Gloria Steinem in Tony-winning playwright Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life, an affecting, rich tapestry about one of the most inspiring and remarkable women of our time. For over five decades, Steinem has raised her voice for women’s equality.

Gloria: A Life, Off Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theatre (Park Avenue South at East 15th Street), does something only live theater can do. Act One is Steinem’s story, told by Lahti in illuminating ways, abetted by projections in a temporary configuration of posh stadium seating and a remarkable cast of seven women playing numerous female and male roles. Act Two, called a Talking Circle, invites audiences to carry the play’s themes into conversations of their own. Special guests often lead the conversation.

CLahtiJGlushakJMarcusSince her days at the University of Michigan, where Lahti received a bachelor's degree in drama, she’s been in the forefront for job/pay equality and health care for women. She’s been particularly effective as a member of NOW (National Organization for Women); a board member of ERA,  which is making ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment a top priority (“especially since we didn’t succeed the first time); and a board member of Equality Now, the grassroots organization that’s trying to eradicate violence against women worldwide. She’s also gone on the road to pitch for candidates she believes in.

“Those four years at university changed my life and turned me into an advocate for women,” says Lahti.”It was the late 60s and the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests, but that wasn’t the only mitigating factor.”

When Lahti heard of the play by Mann, who adapted Having Our Say, from the best-selling memoir by Sarah and Annie Elizabeth Delany and Amy Hill Hearth, she reached out to lead producer Daryl Roth (Kinky Boots, The Normal Heart, Indecent), Tony-winning director Diane Paulus (Waitress, Pippin, Porgy and Bess), and her friend Steinem that she was interested. So were they, it turns out.

Lahti has collaborated closely with Mann and Tony-winning director Diane Paulus to make the play as relevant as possible. “I’ve never had an experience like this,” she enthuses. “Diane’s amazing, so low-ego, and open to ideas we’ve put forward. Gloria and I connect on many levels. Having her as a friend, I had a lot of offer.”

The production is the very definition of gender equality activism. The company is comprised almost entirely of women – cast, creative team, designers, staff, and producers. Featured portraying various female and males roles are Brittany K. Allen, Joanna Glushak (War Paint, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder), Fedna Jacquet,  Francesca F. McKenziePatrena Murray, DeLanna Studi (August: Osage County), and Liz Wisan (Other Desert Cities).

Lahti reveals her activism came about the same way it did for Steinem. “Hers came from witnessing that her mother wasn’t able to live a full life for lots of reasons. I witnessed the same thing with my mother Elizabeth. She was always second class in her marriage and not really respected. She was never able to live her full potential. That worry has been the fuel of my activism. That’s where Gloria and I connect on a very deep level. I feel the same type of fire in my belly.”

She’s quite candid about pushing her mother away “because I was afraid of becoming her. Gloria did the same. However, I was vindicated by mother’s last chapter. She became a professional artist and a pilot. I like to think she was inspired by her daughter and the feminist movement.”

CLahtiBookCoverBut it wasn’t just her mother or Steinem’s. “In the suburb of Detroit where I grew up, it was every mother,” stated Lahti. “They had the role that was handed to them: housewives, which in itself is an honorable thing, but none were able to live to their full potential. It was the same everywhere. I was determined, like Gloria, to make sure all women matter. That’s the message that resonates throughout Gloria: A Life.”

Lahti calls herself a “dilettante activist.” “I do all I can when I’m not working, but primarily I’m an artist. While I hold activism in my heart, my advocacy is a drop in the bucket compared to how Gloria devoted her life to it. What’s wonderful about Emily’s play is I get to do both.”

She reveals a moment in her career that still embarrasses her. “I was already an activist when I auditioned for a Broadway show. It was a part I really wanted. I had already had my blood-curdling moment with a man and decided I’d never allow myself to be treated in a disrespectful way.” She went in to find the director sitting on a couch and motioning for her to sit next to him. “He was flirting and rubbing my thigh. I’m giggling and laughing, saying nothing because I wanted the job.

“When I left the office, I felt so disgusted with myself – not with him – for not speaking up. That was something that happened much too often. Before Anita Hill, there wasn’t even a word for sexual harassment. Those hearings were tough to watch, especially how all these old, white men demeaned her. That might have been the first time that it dawned on me: It’s not okay! But, recently, we lived through all that again.”

“We’re living through a pivotal moment for women’s rights,” notes Daryl Roth, “and it’s incredibly important to be telling this story at this moment in time, reminding
us how far we have come, enlightening a younger generation of women of their history and legacy, and empowering us to do the work yet ahead. This extraordinary group of women is unprecedented on or Off-Broadway. We honor Gloria’s five decades of activism and breaking down barriers for women around the world. We’re so very lucky that Christine, whose life has been affected and inspired by Gloria, is our Gloria. Her physicality is uncanny. It feels like she’s channeling Gloria.

“In our Talking Circle, we’ve been mesmerized by the heartfelt responses of those who’re angry and frustrated with recent events in the world. Having their voices heard gives them comfort and hope that they’re not alone. Part of the power of this is learning how different the experiences have been. That makes each of our performance a living, breathing thing.”

Diane Paulus agrees. “Hearing the stories has been amazing. For some, it’s a trip down memory lane; for younger generations, an informative lesson of where we came from, and what their mothers and grandmothers went through. Emily’s play embraces the present moment, so we’re consistently updating the script to energize the production. Christine’s a supremely talented actress, activist, and friend of Gloria’s. She’s brought everything in her being to this production. Audiences, female and male, are moved.

Lahti focuses on three major periods of her life: childhood, her journey as an actress and activist, and the realities of her life as a middle-aged woman in Hollywood in True Stories from an Unreliable Eyewitness, a comical and self-deprecating essay collection. She performed aspects of it as monologues in cabarets and intimate theatres to better hone them for publication.

CLahtiSwingShift84She was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress for 1984’s Swing Shift, and won a 1995 Oscar for Best Short Film, Live Action for Lieberman in Love, in which she starred and directed.

Her early years in New York, she as a waitress and did commercials before breaking into theater and TV. Off Broadway, she appeared in major roles at the Public; in the rotating cast of Culture Project’s Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s award-winning The Exonerated, a first-person narrative about wrongfully-convicted inmates; and revivals, such as Clifford OdetsThe Country Girl; and Second Stage’s revival of Jules Feiffer’s black comedy Little Murders.

Broadway roles have included Michael Weller’s bittersweet romance Loose End, Wendy Wasserstein’s acclaimed The Heidi Chronicles; and Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning black comedy God of Carnage.

She’s been equally at home onstage and on TV. “I was getting some great roles in TV, and stayed away from theater for a while. But I began to crave it after I aged out of certain TV and film roles.”

CLahtiHusbTSchlammeLahti’s had recurring roles in The Blacklist, the reboot of Hawaii Five-0, and co-starred three seasons on Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit as A.D.A. Sonya Paxton, and five seasons as Dr. Kathryn Austin on Chicago Hope. She’s especially proud of her role in 2004’s short-lived [only one season], way ahead of its time Jack and Bobby, a futuristic faux documentary in which she had the scene-stealing role of the eccentric college professor and single mother of brothers Jack and Bobby McCallister and her efforts to secure one a place in the history as U.S. president. It netted her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in at TV Series/Drama.

One role that definitely shouldn’t be overlooked is her marriage in 1983 to her soul mate producer/director Thomas Schlamme (The Americans, West Wing, and Sports Night among others). Though they had shared theatrical interests, at the time Lahti says, “I was very suspect of any man. I thought all men wanted to squish me, but he turned out to be this incredible humanist. In those days, men never called themselves feminists. They were humanists. Today, you can’t get away with that! You have to identify where you stand.”

One reason their marriage has been strong, Lahti points out, “is that we have work we’re passionate about and share our adventures with each other.” She described being directed by her husband in a play and episodes of Chicago Hope and Jack and Bobby as “wonderful experiences.” Either way you look at it, she says, “I really lucked out.”

For tickets and more information on Gloria: A Life, visit www.gloriatheplay.com, www.ticketmaster.com,or call (800) 745-3000.

December '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Brewster McCloud 

(Warner Archive)

Made immediately after his 1970 breakthrough, M*A*S*H, Robert Altman’s character study of a young man who wants to fly—literally—while living in the bowels of the Houston Astrodome is one of the director’s most willfully bizarre efforts.

 

 

 

The enjoyably oddball cast—Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Margaret Hamilton, Michael Murphy, and Shelley Duvall in her debut—can only provide so much color to Altman’s aggressively experimental failure, which weakly nods towards better films like 8-1/2 and The Wizard of Oz. The film has a good and grainy look on Blu-ray.

 

A Dry White Season 

(Criterion)

Euzhan Palcy’s 1989 drama is a blunt but insightful anti-apartheid tract, as a white South African family sheltered from the realities of the government’s racist system discovers what’s happening after its beloved gardener is put on trial. Donald Sutherland and Susan Sarandon are decent, Janet Suzman and Zakes Mokae are terrific, while Marlon Brando gives one of the most energetic performances of his late career (and an Oscar nomination) as a boisterous lawyer.

 

 

 

There’s a sparkling hi-def transfer; extras include a new Palcy interview; a vintage Palcy/Nelson Mandela conversation; and a 1989 Sutherland “Today Show” interview.

 

 

 

 

 

God Bless the Broken Road 

(Lionsgate)

In this draggy expansion of a popular country tune, a young widow (her soldier husband was killed in Afghanistan) finds her faith sorely tested until the arrival of a handsome stranger who befriends her daughter helps her back on the right path.

 

 

 

Lindsay Pulsipher as the mom and Makenzie Moss as her daughter are quite good, while the supporting cast led by Kim Delaney, Jordin Sparks and Robin Givens is OK. But the whole thing feels like one long melodramatic sermon, mitigating the goodwill of its premise. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include interviews and featurettes.

 

Mame 

(Warner Archive)

This turgid musical stars an over-the-hill but game Lucille Ball as the partying aunt of a young boy who becomes his guardian and manages to steer him well despite her reputation, with songs by Jerry Herman that run the gamut from the now-holiday classic “We Need a Little Christmas” to standards “Loving You” and “It’s Today.”

 

 

 

Robert Preston matches Lucy as her love interest, but the rest of the cast isn’t up to snuff; Gene Saks’ fuzzy direction makes its 130 minutes seem like 130 hours. The film looks fine in hi-def; lone extra is a vintage making-of featurette.

 

 

 

 

 

Picnic at Hanging Rock 

(Acorn)

Joan Lindsay’s classic novel about the mysterious disappearance of four young women was made into a stylish if muddled 1975 Peter Weir film; this new five-hour mini-series has all the stylishness but replaces the confusion with a haunting quality that gives the story its powerful impact.

 

 

 

Natalie Dormer is perfect as the school headmistress who must deal with the emotional fallout and disastrous aftermath of the (mainly) unsolved disappearance. There’s an especially good hi-def transfer; extras comprise cast and crew interviews and on-set footage

 

Smallfoot 

(Warner Bros)

Yetis are abominable snowmen for those who don’t remember (and a cousin of Bigfoot, hence the title), and this humorous animated feature’s clever conceit—that a human is spotted by one of the yetis, who thought it was just a legend—helps paper over some interchangeable songs by Common and Zendaya.

 

 

 

The top-notch voice cast, including James Corden, Gina Rodriguez and Channing Tatum—also does its part to keep the movie’s good nature quotient high. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include interviews, featurettes, a mini-movie and music videos.

 

 

 

 

 

Support the Girls 

(Magnolia)

Andrew Bujalski’s usually annoying mumblecore aesthetic is kept to a minimum in this entertaining glimpse at the manager of a local T&A bar (a would-be Hooters) on her last day, dealing with personal and professional problems like acting as a surrogate mother for the young women employed as scantily-clad waitresses.

 

 

 

In the lead, Regina Hall gives a tremendously affecting performance that forms the film’s emotional core, and she has a great rapport with the rest of the cast, especially Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle as her closest employees. There’s a superior hi-def transfer.

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