by Michael Bracken
Something’s missing from Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. I think it’s the plot.
Which is not to say Stoppard’s latest opus is anything short of engaging, exciting, and, at times, even enthralling. But it often seems as much a dissertation as a drama; a lively, fascinating dissertation to be sure, but more academic than theatrical, nonetheless.
This being Stoppard, its characters are fiercely intelligent and largely over-educated. The latter is not true of its central character, Hilary (Adelaide Clemens, in a bravura performance). She has the smarts but not the degrees. Still a student at Loughborough, she’s up for a job at the prestigious Krohl Institute, a think tank funded by the wildly successful hedge fund entrepreneur, Jerry Krohl (Jon Tenney).
Hilary’s an anachronism. She believes in God. She prays. And, unlike her sometime lover, Spike (Chris O’Shea), and Amal (Eshan Bajpay), her competition for the job at the institute, she believes the brain is more than just a collection of neurons that’s evolved over the centuries to its current state as a repository of genetically learned and engrained behaviors and responses. There’s much discussion espousing rival theories on the nature of the brain in general and, in particular the “hard problem:” consciousness.
Hilary gets the job, and, with the help of student-intern Bo (Karoline Xu), publishes a study that validates her theory of cerebral function, which also happens to be that of her boss, Leo (Robert Petkoff). So much for non-plot #1. In the interest of not being a spoiler, I’ll refrain from revealing the unexpected flourish that keeps the debate alive.
There’s no spoiling non-plot #2 – Stoppard does the honors. Early on, we learn that Hilary had a baby at age fifteen, a girl whom she named Catherine. She gave Catherine up for adoption. She hopes she’s happy and well taken care of.
Soon we see financial maven Jerry at home with his prepubescent daughter, Cathy, who looks so much like Hilary I thought for a second that Clemens had shrunk. But no, it’s Katie Beth Hall, giving a straightforward performance that is blessedly devoid of the precocious or the cute that so often accompany children onstage.
Yet for all her genuineness, Cathy’s words seem forced when she asks her mother, on the phone, if she’s an orphan because she’s adopted. A schoolmate has suggested as much.
It’s a mystery why Stoppard feels the need to show his cards as to Cathy’s parentage when the poker game has barely begun. Perhaps he thinks it would be banal to elevate the issue to an actual story line. But if that’s the case, why bother to include it at all? He’s such a clever writer, surely he could have created at least a semblance of a story arc. He hasn’t seen fit to do so.
Jack O’Brien’s direction is succinct without being terse. He and set designer David Rockwell use the “ensemble,” a group of six youngish actors, to change scenes with movement verging on the ceremonial as they carry furnishings like tables, chairs, beds, and accessories on and off the stage. Any number of them may be seen at various times sitting on a banquette upstage, watching the proceedings like a mute Greek chorus.
O’Brien keeps his excellent cast in sync throughout. O’Shea, Bajpay, and Tenney all shine. Clemens glows. It seems like she’s always onstage, and aren’t we lucky that’s the case? There are no bells or whistles in her approach to Hilary, just pristine integrity and a commitment to living in every single moment.
The Hard Problem never quite congeals into a play, but it lets us watch intelligent actors play intelligent characters expounding intelligent ideas and theories. Don’t look for a beginning, middle, and an end, but enjoy a glimpse into the mind of one of the (if not the) most perspicacious living English-language playwrights.
Stoppard may wear his intellect on his sleeve, but so would you if you had his intellect.
Photos: Paul Kolnik
Through January 6th at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater (150 W. 65th Street). https://www.lct.org/shows/hard-problem/. 100 minutes with no intermission.