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A CurtainUp Review
The Hard Problem
Previously presented in London (2015), Los Angeles (2016) and Chicago and D.C. in 2017, The Hard Problem may not be ranked alongside his most profound or successful plays such as Arcadia , The Real Thing , The Coast of Utopia and even the recent excellent revival of the brilliantly nonsensical Travesties . But Stoppard fans will be grateful that his super keen intellect remains as functional as it is formidable. The jury is still out whether his dramatic prowess is at its peak with this play.
Under the direction of Jack O'Brien at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theatre The Hard Problem is probably intended to be a challenge for theatergoers who already love the mostly brilliant body of work by the now eighty-one year old Stoppard. For others, it may serve as an amusingly brainy consideration of what we know and what we don't know about consciousness and its relationship to the various sciences. Just don't expect to be swept away by anything that might be described as turmoil, tension, or twist in the plot in a play that may not really be a very good one.
I won't single anyone out for commendation beyond their collective excellence. The fine cast portrays a nicely contrasted collection of brainiacs.
The plot revolves around Hillary (Adelaide Clemens) an inquisitive and highly motivated psychology graduate student who believes in God and is not especially comfortable with the suppositions of strictly scientific theorists. Following a rather matter-of-fact intimacy with a tutor named Spike (Chris O'Shea) she is invited to work on her doctorate at a neuroscience research center run by entrepreneurial hedge-fund trader Jerry Krohl (Jon Tenny). Her boss Leo (Robert Petkoff) also believes that science and psychology are not mutually exclusive. There, Hilary competes with Amal (Eshan Bajpay), a rival researcherm and an ardent materialist and hedge-fund market prognosticator.
What doesn't start out like much fun gradually does become more intriguing as the plot expands slightly beyond the purely academic to include the romantically paired scientists Julia (Nina Grollman) and Ursula (Tara Summers).
Exactly how well The Hard Problem develops dramatically is in how much theory you can explore and endure before you need real emotions. There are hints and glimmers of financial, romantic and political aspects to be considered as we become invested in the characters charting their way through supposition and sex. . ..\ and through the largess of Krohl's funding. A little nudity between Spike and Hilllary during a brief return encounter is something we might theorize to be gratuitous.
That our lives and our consciousness can be experienced only by its scientific application may not be the stuff of great drama but Stoppard gives it a try with characters who make a reasonable stab at it. Hillary is sincerely open, generous and a very good person. The play's only real puzzlers concern her discovery that the daughter she gave up when she was fifteen might be Cathy (Katie Beth Hall), Krohl's adopted daughter; also whether she should out her assistant Bo (Karoline Xu) for altering the results of a test.
Designer David Rockwell fluidly delivers the essential furnishings and decor on a bare stage. More and more we get used to having transitional mood music enhance a play much like in films, as if the playwright needed help. In this instance, the composer is Bob James. The music is good. All other technical aspects are top drawer.
In the real world, there are the doctors of the mind and the body and the pragmatic investigators of the human experience of all studies and persuasions. They are all forever trying to find the formula that defines who we are and why we exist. Let's thank Stoppard for putting an attractive group of researchers in the same work place even though what they are talking about is mainly theory and not very theatrical.
For more about Tom Stoppard and links to other plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, see the Stoppard page in our Playwrights Album.
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The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard Directed by Jack O'Brien
Cast: Chris O'Shea (Spike), Adelaide Clemens (Hillary), Eshan Bajpay (Amal), Robert Petkoff (Leo), Nina Grollman (Julia), Tara Summers (Ursula), Jon Tenney (Jerry), Katie Beth Hall (Cathy), Karoline Xu (Bo), John Patrick Doherty, Eleanor Handley, Olivia Hebert, Sagar Kiran, Baylen Thomas, Kim Wong (Ensemble)
Sets: David Rockwell
Costumes (Catherine Zuber)
Lighting: Japhy Weideman
Sound: Marc Salzberg
Original Music: Bob James
Stage Manager: Chris De Camillis
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes no intermission
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse 150 West 65th Street
From 10/25/18 Opened 11/19/18 Ends 01/06/19
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 11/17/18
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