The Hard Problem
Photo: Kevin Berne

The Hard Problem

The first new Stoppard play in nine years.

American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, California – until November 13, 2016
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Carey Perloff
Starring Brenda Meaney, Anthony Fusco, Narea Kang, Mike Ryan, Safiya Fredericks, Vandit Bhatt, Stacy Ross
website

Usually a Tom Stoppard play is an intellectual treat, but “The Hard Problem” is part treat and part treatment. Perhaps I over-anticipated the renowned playwright’s first new play in nine years since I’m such a fan of his work, particularly “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” “Arcadia,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “Coast of Utopia.” Don’t get me wrong, there is much to commend in this production, it’s just that “The Hard Problem” tackles a cerebral issue so challenging that at times it dominates the entire drama, characters and all, which results in a sometimes static experience. For that reason, commenting on the quality of the direction or the actors is problematic.

The central question, the “hard problem,” is that of consciousness — what separates the human mind from the human brain? From where do we get our thoughts, our emotions, our conscience, our ethics? How does a few ounces of brain matter, which we can see and dissect, turn us into prescient and feeling beings? Is there a higher power that bears responsibility for the mind’s design? For most of the intermission-less 100 minute performance, these wonderfully weighty questions are discussed, but of course, not resolved.

The action of the drama centers on Hilary (Brenda Meaney, “Indian Ink,” “Venus in Fur”), a young psychologist, who at the beginning of the play, is interviewing for a position at the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science. Jerry Krohl (Mike Ryan), founder of the Institute, is presented as a stereotypical, hard-driving hedge fund manager, whose rationale for establishing the Institute is never convincingly explained, except as a vehicle to find the best math whizzes to work at his hedge fund.

Hilary’s job competition is a much better credentialed young mathematician and biophysicist, Amal (Vandit Bhatt). The two partake in a thought-provoking discussion about consciousness with Leo (Anthony Fusco), the head of the department and interviewer. Amal is certain that, in a chess game between a human and a computer, if one can’t tell which one is the computer, then the computer is conscious. Hilary counters that only when a computer is upset at losing the chess game, would the computer be conscious.

To the derision of her friend and occasional lover, Spike (Dan Clegg), Hilary prays nightly, “not to a created-the-world-in-six-days god,” but to an advanced moral intelligence of some kind. She prays for her daughter Cathy, to whom she gave birth when she was 15 and who was immediately adopted by strangers.

When talking about Cathy, Hilary grows open and emotional. We hear briefly about some other characters’ being in love or infatuated, but we never see or understand their feelings. In fact, it is difficult to figure out the characters’ motivations, since they often seem to be predominantly vehicles for the intellectual position they represent. Not that there isn’t a plot in “The Hard Problem,” in fact, there is too much plot. The characters’ interactions become conflated and confused as Stoppard ends the drama with the stock market crashing in 2008. It was all a little too neat.

That being said, it’s a pleasure to watch “The Hard Problem” explore the nature of our sentienceness. So, I forgive “The Hard Problem’s” shortcomings effortlessly in favor of Stoppard’s erudition and cleverness in breaking down an incomprehensible conundrum into understandable ideas in an entertaining fashion. That’s not something one usually sees at the theater.

Emily S. Mendel

emilymendel@gmail.com
©Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.