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The Hard Problem

Tom Stoppard’s latest play takes on the mind/body problem in a cerebral tale of psychologists, scientists and mathematicians.

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Chris O’Shea and Adelaide Clemens in a scene from Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Photo credit: Paul Kolnik)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]Tom Stoppard, our most cerebral modern playwright, has finally written a play that one would have expected from him all along. The Hard Problem, his first play in ten years, is literally about concepts in neuroscience and its characters are psychologists, scientists and mathematicians all studying the brain. While the story and its outcome are intriguing, like many Stoppard plays, the characters are not likeable and you will find yourself not rooting for anyone. (Most likely, many real scientists aren’t lovable people either.) Jack O’Brien, who has previously directed Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, The Invention of Love, and Hapgood, all for Lincoln Center Theater, has chosen his LCT cast without household names just as did the original London production in 2015 by Nicholas Hytner for Britain’s National Theatre.

Although the play does not define it very well but assumes that its viewers understand all about it, it would be possible to enjoy the play without knowing the meaning of the hard problem but it certainly helps. Neuroscientists see a dichotomy between the mind and the brain, that is, the automatic, physical responses of the brain that may be defined by Darwin (survival of the species, etc.) and learned, chosen responses that define the specific person’s mind (finding green a restful color.) The different between self-interest and altruism is a perfect example: is it an example of true goodness or is there an opportunistic gain underlying the choice to help someone out? And then there is the question of faith: is there such a thing as divine intervention or is it simply coincidence? Scientists come down on both sides of the question.

The plays follows psychology major Hilary Matthew as she interviews for a doctoral internship at the Kroll Institute for Brain Science, founded by billionaire hedge fund mogul Jerry Kroll, CEO of Kroll Capital Management, part of London’s financial markets. The question is never answered as to whether Jerry is interested in solving the hard problem or is just seeking an algorithm to help him with stock market predictions. Spike, Hilary’s college mentor and sometime boyfriend, warns her to stay away from religion and goodness at her interview when he finds her praying. Hilary’s secret is that she has had a child out of wedlock at 15 who was given up for adoption and she has prayed every day since in hope that her daughter Catherine has found a good home. She believes in miracles as opposed to simply coincidence.

Eshan Bajpay, Adelaide Clemens and Robert Petkoff in a scene from Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Photo credit: Paul Kolnik)

We meet up with Hilary, now Dr. Matthews of the Kroll Institute, five years later when she is devising a study with Bo, her new brilliant math assistant, to test how much compassion children at varying ages have towards witnessing a woman being subjected to electric shocks. They are trying to prove that as children get older, they become less compassionate due to their experience and their training.

Ironically, Cathy, Jerry’s adopted daughter is one of the subjects in the experiment, which also brings up the thorny question of nature or nurture. Is it a miracle or a coincidence that she just might be Hilary’s biological daughter? And another unexpected variable is that Bo has an undeclared love for Hilary and would do anything to please her. The hard problem ends up unsolved by the end of the play, but then that is why scientists do not call it the easy problem which are things that can be explained.

Director O’Brien’s production is polished and assured although he uses an unnecessary band of six actors to change the scenery and sit by the sidelines watching the action which is not in the script. However, the play seems plot driven rather than character driven. As the heroine Hilary, Adelaide Clemens is charmingly naive and green but comes off as a rather superficial and wide-eyed optimist. As her mathematician friend and atheist boyfriend, Chris O’Shea is the sort of person who is rather unpleasant about always being right. Robert Petkoff as Hilary’s boss Leo of the psychology department is more well-developed as a man of both discernment and sentiment.

Jon Tenney and Katie Beth Hall in a scene from Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Photo credit: Paul Kolnik)

As Hilary’s assistant Bo, Karoline Xu is an ambitious go-getter from the time we meet her. Eshan Bajpay as the whiz kid mathematician Amal who is Hilary’s competition for the internship but who ends up working for Jerry’s hedge fund is jarringly realistic in his materialism and assuredness. As Ursula, another scientist at the Kroll, Tara Summers has the energy and forcefulness of the truly brilliant. Though we see little of Jerry Kroll, founder of the institute, Jon Tenney plays him as the clichéd billionaire who curses people out and always has the last word. As his adopted daughter Cathy, Katie Beth Hall is questioning and curious in a totally credible teenage way.

David Rockwell’s settings on the round stage of the Mitzi E. Newhouse are stylized and contemporary in a high tech manner but with backdrop silhouettes that set the locales. The attractively muted costumes by Catherine Zuber suggest that dress down Fridays have not arrived in England as of yet. Japhy Weideman’s lighting has various subtle color schemes for the back walls of each scene which are effective. Bob James’ beautiful original piano music before the scenes makes the play seem more like a drawing room comedy or drama that it actually is.

Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem is one of those cerebral exercises created to prove a point. The characters are ultimately pawns in the hands of the author. Jack O’Brien’s engrossing production doesn’t give you time find answers to the necessary questions about the mind/body dilemma. This is not a play for the uninitiated; it helps if you have a background in the neurological issues being discussed. The play’s cool style once again shows the author to be our most intellectual playwright not afraid to deal with deep issues in a theatrical way.

The Hard Problem (through January 6, 2019)

Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, 212-239-6200 or visit

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (995 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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