It’s given that a Tom Stoppard play will tickle and test your gray matter, and that’s doubly so for The Hard Problem, a contemporary drama whose title refers to cracking the code of human consciousness. Is the brain the same thing as the mind? Scientists and philosophers will have to get back to you on that.
That’s one of the key themes in this relatively compact drama at Lincoln Center that also dives into debates about altruism and self-interest, a Stoppard go-to that comes up in a number of his earlier works, including Arcadia. The script is smart and engaging, and the performances are fine-tuned. But as conversations go in circles and turn repetitive, the play – the author’s first new one in almost a decade – falls into the category of Stoppard lite.
The action spins around Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), a psychology student in her late 20s who prays to God nightly to look after the daughter she gave up for adoption 12 years earlier. She believes that consciousness can't be simply explained away in predictable, mechanical terms. Her views are 180 degrees away from her tutor, Spike (Chris O’Shea), who’s not just interested in Hilary’s mind.
Fittingly, Spike is spiky. Like the other sketchy secondary characters, he basically gets one trait. That includes Pilates instructor Julia (Nina Grollman), her scientist lover Ursula (Tara Summers), computer science specialist with a nose for investments Amal (Eshan Bajpay), Hilary’s research assistant Bo (Karoline Xu) and Hilary’s boss Leo (Robert Petkoff).
They mostly all collide at Hilary’s new place of employment, the UK’s prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science. The research center is privately funded by a richer-than-God hedge-fund manager, Jerry (Jon Tenney), who spends his time shouting into his phone, berating researchers and coddling his 12-year-old daughter Cathy (Katie Beth Hall). Cathy is adopted. Jerry’s presence as a dad serves to underscore the exploration of coincidences and miracles in a development involving Hilary's past that you can see coming from a mile away.
Director Jack O'Brien, who won a Tony for steering Stoppard's sprawling epic The Coast of Utopia, has assembled a fine cast, led capably by Clemens. The look of the show is clean and clear. On stage at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, beds rise up, London panoramas descend, and walls glide. There’s a kinetic quality to it all, but O’Brien has an odd habit of making scene changes near-ceremonious events. A piano plinks. A well-dressed ensemble of six moves furniture. When they’re not doing that, they hawk-eye the play from the sidelines. Why so much ado about transitions? In a play about what goes on in the mind, the staging concept is a nagging head-scratcher.