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He Says: The Hard Problem is a Dilemma; Hardly Stoppard’s Best But Its Heart Still Beats Strong

He Says: The Hard Problem is a Dilemma; Hardly Stoppard’s Best But Its Heart Still Beats Strong

With the slamming of the book, The Hard Problem begins to weave and dodge its way through the cerebral pathways of the brain and the blood stream of our collective intellectual abstract flesh. Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia, name a few) tries valiantly to connect the intellect, consciousness, and sexuality of our mind to the heart and soul of the matter through discussion and debate.  He starts with survival strategies, beautifully defined by the sexy but emotionally stilted scholar, Spike, played delightfully by Chris O’Shea (Old Vic’s The Sea Plays), handsomely standing solid for science against the more complex thinker and struggling psychologist, Hilary.  When caught, Hilary, compassionately portrayed by a detailed Adelaide Clemens (ATC’s Hold on to Me Darling), kneeling down by her bed and praying for forgiveness, a schism is unleashed that will pulse through the veins of The Hard Problem like white blood cells looking for a virus from this moment forward. The clot in the vein wonders aloud; how does science explain consciousness and emotional responses to pain and compassion? It is said, “Darwin, doesn’t do sentimental“, and when given the odds of probability, 4 chances for redemption and attempt might be a perfectly reasonable answer. But does it explain The Hard Problem.

Jon Tenney, Katie Beth Hall. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik.

Directed strongly by the precise Jack O’Brien (Broadway’s Carousel, The Invention of Love), this sexy slice of intellectualism and combative debate floats high in the realm of smart talk, but gets lost somewhere in the overall arch of meaning and underlying connection. No one does Smart and Sexy like Stoppard, and O’Brien conducts the piece as gently as the beautiful background piano music by Bob James (Stoppard/O’Brien’s Hapgood), with solid sound by Marc Salzberg (LCT’s My Fair Lady), guiding the crowd of black clad observers and constructors of David Rockwell’s (Broadway’s Lobby Hero) dynamic set, like a persistent maestro from one dilemma to another. They assemble all the essential organisms into their assigned place, creating enviroments for this band of talented actors to convene and interact within the details of Stoppard’s exercise in emotional conflict. And like musicians creating the musical scenarios that expertly pulsates one after the other with what appears to be a professional exactitude, the band and crew tease apart the theories and dialectical methods of analysis regarding the conscious brain and the impulse of care, but to what end?

Karoline Xu, Eshan Bajpay, Tara Summers, Adelaide Clemens, Christ O’Shea, Nina Grollman.

The cast, dressed cleanly and neatly by the master costumer, Catherine Zuber (LCT’s Junk, Oslo), play out the psychological game in a systemic bias towards cooperative behavior, helping and defending one another with love and care at the core. Each play their role with delicate adherence to the rules, like well-trained lab rats. Especially compelling are the lesbian couple, Julia, played solidly by Nina Grollman (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh) and her brainiac girlfriend, Ursula, portrayed appealingly by Tara Summers (Geffen’s Yes, Prime Minister), as well as the romantic mathematician, Bo, delicately portrayed by Karoline Xu (Central Square’s Precious Little) within her hard to believe partnership with boyfriend Amal, amusingly played by the wise Eshan Bujpay (Vineyard’s Can You Forgive Her?). The others; Leo, portrayed by Robert Petkoff (Vineyard’s Beast in the Jungle), and Jerry, played by Jon Tenney (LCT’s The Heiress), the cornerstones of Krohl Institute, are left a little further out of the loop of believability, sometimes vaguely playing patterns of structure and plot as if instructed in a psychological test rather than real human interactions. Love is hard to see or express in The Hard Problem, but it definitely rises up and causes an endless string of defections and dynamics, a formidable thing to study in the science of trust and reward. But is the impulse of love ever really dissected and defined scientifically enough for someone like Spike to defend?

Karoline Xu, Adelaide Clemens. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, noted at the beginning between these two opposing forces, Hilary and Spike, the game analyses why two completely rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. Will they betray one another or will they remain silent risking it all in hopes that the other does the same. It’s a compelling exercise in human behavior and morality, and inside The Hard Problem, a strong and compassionate heart beats, pumping blood and antibodies through this delicate and fascinating creation of molecules, flesh, and bones. Stoppard has created a sweet inside, but a somewhat less functional body to encapsulate it all. The dilemma is real, but somehow the collected data fail to connect the dots and find a logical and compelling conclusion.

Adelaide Clemens (foreground) with Eshan Bajpay (left) and Robert Petkoff. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik.
The Hard Problem Directed by Jack O’Brien; Written by: Tom Stoppard; Lincoln Center Theater Production.

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Off Broadway

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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