The protagonist of Tom Stoppard’s gorgeous new play, The Hard Problem, shares with her creator a relentlessly curious mind. We meet Hilary as a doctoral student in psychology, who defies her tutor to “explain consciousness,” a prevailing concern for her and in the play at large. He responds by cheekily holding his finger to a candle flame, to demonstrate pain. “Brilliant,” Hilary deadpans. “Now do sorrow.”
The focus of Problem is ostensibly the mysteries of the brain, an enormous subject in itself—though as this early exchange suggests, that other tricky and inexplicably related organ, the heart, is just as relevant. This would be vast and perilous terrain for most writers, but Stoppard, who is now 81, has retained an ability to mine all sorts of complicated subject matter with compassion and empathy as potent as his wit. Problem ranks with his most fully realized work, recalling Arcadia in its reconciliation of concepts that may seem arcane at first blush with characters who, beyond their dazzling dialogue, speak to our souls.
With Hilary in particular—who is made both vital and palpably haunted in Adelaide Clemens’s lovely, blossoming performance—Stoppard has given us a heroine for our times: a young woman whose refusal to swallow the orthodoxies of her field stands in sharp contrast to the herd mentality that has come to define our polarized political climate, on the left and right. Hilary is specifically skeptical of her colleagues’ skepticism about faith, most keenly and scathingly voiced by the tutor, Spike, whose relationship with her slinks past their studies.
“I’ve got nothing personal against God, except the usual, but I expected better from you,” says Spike, given a rake’s charm by Chris O’Shea, after catching Hilary praying before bed. The debate that ensues is characteristic of those that fuel the play—thrilling in its intellectual and emotional punch, and entirely naturalistic, if you accept the simple premise that the characters in Problem are smarter and more eloquent than most or all of the people you converse with on a regular basis.
That’s not to say that Hilary and Spike and various other accomplished scientists who populate the play, most of them under 40, don’t struggle, movingly, to articulate their thoughts and feelings, and control their too-human impulses. Hilary finds employment at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, where the head of the psychology department, Leo, shares her restless interest in consciousness—in “cognition—reasoning, imagining, believing,” as he elaborates, things that can’t be easily measured for a study. But he is also desperate to find something “sexy” to sustain the support of the institute’s founder, a hedge-fund billionaire, who’s more interested in the attention-getting figures harder science can provide.
The potential for true altruism given our genetic mandate (as Spike reminds us) to serve self-interest is a related concern. Even Hilary’s attraction to faith, we soon learn, is at least partly rooted in personal trauma, stemming from an event that will link her to another character in what might be interpreted as a coincidence—a term that comes up at a couple of key points in the play—or, were a lesser writer involved, a contrivance.
But the connections forged, or attempted, in Problem are ultimately no simpler than the questions posed. Under the robust direction of Jack O’Brien, who previously managed Stoppard’s struggling intellectuals in Lincoln Center Theater’s Broadway productions of The Coast of Utopia and The Invention of Love, the excellent actors mine their characters’ sensibilities and vulnerabilities for all their poignance and humor. Robert Petcoff’s vigorous, flamboyantly frustrated Leo also harbors deep feelings for Hilary, as does Bo, a brilliant and ambitious young woman, played by an endearing Karoline Xu, brought to their department after finding a plush gig at Krohl Capital Management spiritually unfulfilling.
Even the titan himself, Jerry Krohl, and his pompous protégé in finance (and Hilary’s one-time rival) Amal, respectively played by Jon Tenney and Eshan Bajpay, emerge as funny and not unsympathetic. Stoppard’s world view is too generous and nuanced to simply condemn any of his characters, or the theories they espouse or survival strategies they represent.
Hilary exists with these characters but also apart from them, engaged but poised to move on, and ahead. David Rockwell’s lean, contemporary set for The Hard Problem is in constant motion, with ensemble members moving about and adjusting it between scenes. “Miracle” is another word that comes up several times in the text; if Stoppard’s latest play doesn’t argue they occur, in the traditional sense, it leaves you feeling that some progress is inevitable—and that is, at this juncture, a small miracle in itself.
The Hard Problem opened November 19, 2018, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater and runs through January 6. Tickets and information: lct.org