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Theatre in Review: The Hard Problem (Lincoln Center Theater/Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater)

Karoline Xu, Adelaide Clemens. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Tom Stoppard is a very, very clever man -- amusingly, in the most recent edition of Lincoln Center Theater Review, André Bishop and Jack O'Brien admit that they often embark on productions of his plays without fully understanding them -- but in The Hard Problem he may have finally written himself into a corner. A playwright who has routinely gone where his colleagues feared to tread -- offering deep investigations of art, politics, modernism, and totalitarianism -- he finds himself this time around caught in a logical contradiction. And while he has provided his usual acres of witty dialogue and arguments that crackle, for once you can catch him rigging the game.

The hard problem of the title is the question of what makes us tick. Most of the play's characters dwell in the orbit of the Krohl Institute, a research center established by Jerry, the cheerfully lethal founder of a massively successful hedge fund. At the Krohl, neuroscience is the thing; just about everyone on staff is dedicated to proving that humans are little more than highly sophisticated arrangements of neurons, firing away in a manner that makes them indistinguishable from -- if much less efficient than -- computers. (A typical argument: "The brain is a machine, a biological machine, and it thinks. It happens to be made of living cells, but it would make no difference if the machine was made of electronic gates and circuits, or paperclips and rubber bands for that matter. It just has to be able to compute.") They're neurobiological mechanics, really, more interested in devising forms of artificial intelligence that put human functioning to shame than in exploring the nature of humanity. Into this den of materialism steps Hilary, a specialist in psychology, who poses such heterodox questions as, What, then, is consciousness? And does altruism exist?

This line of inquiry makes Hilary about as popular as a computer virus, and, indeed, a paper she presents at a conference -- titled "Is God the Last Man Standing?" -- causes something of a scandal, but still she persists. And, as she fences with practically everyone else, slicing up her opponents' arguments with surgical precision and insisting that we are more than the sum of our nerve endings, Stoppard supports her by scattering the action with examples of irrational and/or magnanimous behavior designed to prove her point.

For example, there's the long-running, off-and-on liaison between Hilary and Spike, a member of the man-is-a-computer crowd; each despises the other's ideas, yet when they come into proximity, into bed they fall. And there's Amal, a quant (short for quantitative analyst) working for Jerry, who gets fired for too-publicly sharing the notion that "the market is a belief system with a short memory, and it's leveraged on highly correlated billion-dollar bets -- and trillions on side bets -- which are going to go wrong together. I mean to zero." (Not that Jerry disagrees, mind you; in fact, he plans to exploit the market's neurosis, profiting from a coming crash by selling short.) And there's the case of Bo, a brilliant young associate at the institute, whose devotion to Hilary is so intense that she cooks the findings of a controversial study to provide pleasing results -- unleashing another scandal in which Hilary must choose to save herself or her acolyte.

In addition, as if to refute the Krohlites' assertion that we live in an essentially random universe, in which miracles are impossible and coincidences suspect, Stoppard drops into his plot any number of Dickensian twists. While interviewing for her position, Hilary runs into Julia, a high school friend from whom she has drifted -- she is married to Ursula, a member of the staff -- and who becomes her confidante. Bo is revealed to be the lover of Amal, bringing him back into Hilary's world even as he has been banished by Jerry. And then there is the central event of Hilary's young life: the infant she gave up, eleven years earlier, when she was fifteen. Before doing so, Hilary named the baby Catherine. As it happens, Jerry has an eleven-year-old daughter named Cathy. I'll let you puzzle that out for yourself.

But, in weighing the opposing forces of mind and soul, Stoppard rather too obviously puts his thumb on the scale. Early on, Hilary, fed up with Spike's nattering on about the prisoner's dilemma -- described by Wikipedia as "a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two completely rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so" -- notes, acidly, that such contrived situations have nothing to do with the complexities of existence. However, The Hard Problem is so packed with contrivances -- including a mother-and-daughter situation right out of Stella Dallas -- that it seems to exist in its own little echo chamber, far removed from real life. It doesn't help that Hilary's pesky (to the others) belief in God has no systemic or deeply held beliefs; it's merely notional, a hedged bet that calms her when she thinks about her lost daughter. (Confronting Spike, she snaps, "I wish you'd stop saying 'God' like that, as if I'm talking about someone who created the world in six days and then had a rest. He'd think I was a complete idiot." But that's about as much as we learn about her theology, other than that she gets down on her knees at bedtime, like a little girl.)

After a few scenes, it becomes pretty obvious that Stoppard is practicing his own form of game theory, and the rules feel oddly malleable. For this reason, and because the play's argument never really advances, preferring to begin over and over again, The Hard Problem -- which has been elegantly produced -- never really catches intellectual or dramatic fire. O'Brien's direction -- no matter what he says in the article mentioned above -- is unfailingly lucid, and he has devised, along with the set designer David Rockwell, an efficient solution to the play's multiscene structure, in which a handful of ensemble members rapidly assemble and take apart each economically realized set while Bob James' lovely music keeps us engaged. (Rockwell's design also includes some alluring cut-out skylines of London and Venice.) Catherine Zuber's varied and character-specific costumes, Japhy Weideman's tasteful lighting, and Marc Salzberg's unobtrusive sound design are all up to the Lincoln Center Theater standard.

The role of Hilary is a plum for a young actress, and Adelaide Clemens -- effortlessly radiant, always incisive, and often surprisingly touching -- does full justice to it, carrying the entire play on her slender shoulders. She is robust when engaged in intellectual battle, more than holding her own against the play's extensive supporting cast of mansplainers. Chief among them is Chris O'Shea as Spike, who wears like an expensive sweater his disdain for anything remotely spiritual. Robert Petkoff brings some welcome warmth to the role of Hilary's mentor at the Krohl. As Jerry, a true capitalist killer, Jon Tenney has the kind of smile that kills. Karoline Xu invests Bo with a desperate neediness that fully explains her unethical behavior. Eshan Bajpay is solid as Amal, but I don't envy him the bit of business that requires him to fall into a faint seconds after entering a room.

Stoppard's intelligence and daring -- who else would be bold enough to tackle this theme? -- are a balm in these roiling times, and even at eighty-one he writes about characters in their twenties and thirties with perception. But the hard problem is as tough a nut for playwrights as it is for scientists: How does one describe that which cannot be pinned down? Graham Greene ran into similar trouble in some of his Catholic novels, tying his narratives into sailors' knots in order to justify the existence of God. I'm afraid He resists all our attempts to reduce Him to the level of human comprehension. The Hard Problem is a minor work, to be sure, and not really a success, but if you're already a fan of Stoppard, you'll want to drop in. And, in a funny way, there's something reassuring about the idea that even the English-speaking theatre's biggest brain can occasionally get tangled up in his own words. -- David Barbour

(5 December 2018)

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