Review: “The Hard Problem”

Chaon Cross and Jurgen Hooper Photo by Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through April 9
Tickets: $48-$68
Phone: 773-753-4472

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Like all of Tom Stoppard’s plays, “The Hard Problem,” his first in nine years, threatens to overwhelm the audience with a wealth of ideas and knowledge. Only this time around, the main subject is the nature of thought itself or, more accurately, the title problem posed by Australian philosopher, David Chalmers: how to explain the phenomenon of consciousness.

As usual, the playwright looks at the question and corollaries from all sides. Is the brain nothing more than an elaborate computer that behaves in measurable, predictable ways? Or does the “mind” involve something mysterious that goes beyond that? Are we merely Darwinian animals hard-wired to be egoists who look out only for our own interests, even when it seems we’re doing otherwise? Or is real altruism possible? And what of morality? And how does all this relate to high finance and hedge funds? And do coincidences really exist or, as one businessman says, are they just perceptions based on insufficient information?

Stoppard’s real accomplishment is that he makes these intellectual and philosophical musings and meditations palpable in human terms, creating captivating characters who are trying—and usually failing—to understand the world around them. That’s more difficult with “The Hard Problem” than, say, with a masterpiece like “Arcadia.” The play, which premiered in 2015 at the National Theatre of Great Britain, is steeped in modern technology, and the minor characters cover the ethnic and gender diversity spectrum so schematically, they can easily come across as two dimensional.

Court Theatre’s terrific production, brilliantly directed by Charles Newell to bring out the humanity (and even a certain sweetness), solves any potential issues. The striking physical staging—with a neutral-toned set by John Culbert, lighting by Keith Parham, costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins, and sound by Andre Pluess—is highly functional and not overbearing. While a couple of characters aren’t fully fleshed out, others come vividly to life with telling details.

Most compelling of all is Hilary, the complicated young psychologist at the center of the story—and on stage virtually the whole time–beautifully played by Chaon Cross. We first see her as a student, saying a prayer over a candle, then enjoying a spirited debate followed by lovemaking with her tutor/mentor Spike (Jürgen Hooper in a fine performance as something of a jerk who is likable nonetheless). She has applied for a position at a number of places, and the only one that’s invited her for an interview is the Krohl Institute of Brain Science. He, a Darwinian, advises her not to let on about her less scientifically rigorous approach to psychology or her belief in God, which he can’t understand at all.

Hilary’s visit to the Krohl Institute starts off on a less-than-encouraging note. While she’s waiting well past her appointment time to see Leo (Brian McCaskill), the next interviewee, Amal (Owais Ahmed), a mathematically inclined neuroscientist of Middle Eastern descent, arrives—and Leo sees him before her.
As it turns out, though, Leo likes Hilary’s blend of science and heart, and she gets the job, while brash, impatient Jerry Krohl (letter-perfect Nathan Hosner), a supreme egotist whose millions pay for the institute, hires Amal to make predictions for his hedge funds.

The rest of the multilayered 100 minutes focus on Hilary’s struggle to find her way. She’s tormented by guilt about the baby girl named Cathy she had when she was fifteen and gave up for adoption, and she desperately wants to find out if her daughter is okay. She also takes on a protegé, a shy Chinese math whiz named Bo (Emjoy Gavino), who is a bit in love with her, as is her co-worker Ursula (Kate Fry, underutilized) despite being in a relationship with Julia (Celeste M. Cooper), Hilary’s one-time school mate. Leo seems to be in love with Hilary, too, judging by allusions to their behavior at a conference.

When Leo and Hilary’s psychology department at the institute seems to be at risk, Hilary hopes to come to the rescue with a ground-breaking experiment. It depends on Bo’s math skills, so she gives Bo, whom she regards as a surrogate daughter, lead byline on the paper they publish, the younger woman’s first.

But here’s where complex issues of motive and morality come into play. Bo has done something that’s all wrong scientifically—for altruistic reasons. Or at least out of love. Or is it?

Another Stoppard signature is the way he ties everything together at the end. At first, Hilary’s grief over her daughter may seem extraneous, but it’s not. I won’t divulge why it’s so relevant, but it is related to something she believes is a coincidence—or rather a miracle—though if we take the time to puzzle it out, we know better, just another of the many curve balls thrown at us. And in this case, the hardest character is shown to have a softer side, one of the mysteries of the human heart and mind.