The Hard Problem is a Dilemma; Hardly Stoppard’s Best But Its Heart Still Beats Strong

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Chris O”Shea, Adelaide Clemens. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik.

The Review: Lincoln Center Theater’s The Hard Problem

By Ross

With the slamming of the book, The Hard Problem begins to weave and dodge its way through the cerebral pathways of the brain and the blood stream of our collective intellectual abstract flesh. Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia, Travesties...to name a few) tries valiantly to connect the intellect, consciousness, and sexuality of our mind to the heart and soul of the matter through discussion and debate.  He starts with survival strategies, beautifully defined by the sexy but emotionally stilted scholar, Spike, played delightfully by Chris O’Shea (Old Vic’s The Sea Plays), handsomely standing solid for science against the more complex thinker and struggling psychologist, Hilary.  When caught, Hilary, compassionately portrayed by a detailed Adelaide Clemens (ATC’s Hold on to Me Darling), kneeling down by her bed and praying for forgiveness, a schism is unleashed that will pulse through the veins of The Hard Problem like white blood cells looking for a virus from this moment forward. The clot in the vein wonders aloud; how does science explain consciousness and emotional responses to pain and compassion? It is said, “Darwin, doesn’t do sentimental“, and when given the odds of probability, 4 chances for redemption and attempt might be a perfectly reasonable answer. But does it explain The Hard Problem.

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Jon Tenney, Katie Beth Hall. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik.

Directed strongly by the precise Jack O’Brien (Broadway’s Carousel, The Invention of Love), this sexy slice of intellectualism and combative debate floats high in the realm of smart talk, but gets lost somewhere in the overall arch of meaning and underlying connection. No one does Smart and Sexy like Stoppard, and O’Brien conducts the piece as gently as the beautiful background piano music by Bob James (Stoppard/O’Brien’s Hapgood), with solid sound by Marc Salzberg (LCT’s My Fair Lady), guiding the crowd of black clad observers and constructors of David Rockwell’s (Broadway’s Lobby Hero) dynamic set, like a persistent maestro from one dilemma to another. They assemble all the essential organisms into their assigned place, creating enviroments for this band of talented actors to convene and interact within the details of Stoppard’s exercise in emotional conflict. And like musicians creating the musical scenarios that expertly pulsates one after the other with what appears to be a professional exactitude, the band and crew tease apart the theories and dialectical methods of analysis regarding the conscious brain and the impulse of care, but to what end?

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Karoline Xu, Eshan Bajpay, Tara Summers, Adelaide Clemens, Christ O’Shea, Nina Grollman.

The cast, dressed cleanly and neatly by the master costumer, Catherine Zuber (LCT’s Junk, Oslo), play out the psychological game in a systemic bias towards cooperative behavior, helping and defending one another with love and care at the core. Each play their role with delicate adherence to the rules, like well-trained lab rats. Especially compelling are the lesbian couple, Julia, played solidly by Nina Grollman (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh) and her brainiac girlfriend, Ursula, portrayed appealingly by Tara Summers (Geffen’s Yes, Prime Minister), as well as the romantic mathematician, Bo, delicately portrayed by Karoline Xu (Central Square’s Precious Little) within her hard to believe partnership with boyfriend Amal, amusingly played by the wise Eshan Bujpay (Vineyard’s Can You Forgive Her?). The others; Leo, portrayed by Robert Petkoff (Vineyard’s Beast in the Jungle), and Jerry, played by Jon Tenney (LCT’s The Heiress), the cornerstones of Krohl Institute, are left a little further out of the loop of believability, sometimes vaguely playing patterns of structure and plot as if instructed in a psychological test rather than real human interactions. Love is hard to see or express in The Hard Problem, but it definitely rises up and causes an endless string of defections and dynamics, a formidable thing to study in the science of trust and reward. But is the impulse of love ever really dissected and defined scientifically enough for someone like Spike to defend?

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Karoline Xu, Adelaide Clemens. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, noted at the beginning between these two opposing forces, Hilary and Spike, the game analyses why two completely rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. Will they betray one another or will they remain silent risking it all in hopes that the other does the same. It’s a compelling exercise in human behavior and morality, and inside The Hard Problem, a strong and compassionate heart beats, pumping blood and antibodies through this delicate and fascinating creation of molecules, flesh, and bones. Stoppard has created a sweet inside, but a somewhat less functional body to encapsulate it all. The dilemma is real, but somehow the collected data fail to connect the dots and find a logical and compelling conclusion.

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Adelaide Clemens (foreground) with Eshan Bajpay (left) and Robert Petkoff. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik.
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The Hard Problem Directed by Jack O’Brien; Written by: Tom Stoppard; Lincoln Center Theater Production.
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