Review: ‘The Hard Problem’ at The Studio Theatre

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No shrinking violet when it comes to exploring humanity’s most complex questions, playwright Tom Stoppard takes a deep dive into the frontiers of neuroscience, human nature, and the existence of God in his newest play, The Hard Problem. Fortunately for all of us, Studio Theatre’s production of this fascinating drama sparkles with fresh insights into questions that have bedeviled centuries of scientists and philosophers. It’s Tom Stoppard at his most provocative.

Tessa Klein and Martin Giles in The Hard Problem. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Stoppard raises his curtain into a stark bedroom where Hilary, a university student studying psychology, has just enjoyed a bedtime romp with her tutor, Spike. He eagerly describes a well-known example of game theory – the study of human conflict and cooperation in competitive situations. Spike insists that a cost-benefit analysis is hardwired into the neuro-biology that governs all decisions, including those pertaining to their relationship. Hilary insists that not all behavior can be predicted by science. To Spike’s amazement and discomfort, she drops to her knees in prayer, and then challenges Spike to “explain consciousness.” The die is cast.

Spike, an ardent materialist, believes that all human behavior will someday be explained by the chemistry of egoism. Hilary argues that “Morality is not science.” Altruism —  being good for its own sake – can’t be explained by science alone. She looks to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as a case in point. Rosasharn Joad’s baby is stillborn as the family treks West.Rather than waste her nourishing breast milk, she feeds it to a starving and destitute man. Spike, however, argues that egoism powers Rosasharn’s seemingly unselfish gesture.

After their casual affair, Hilary and Spike go their separate ways – she to the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science (founded by hedge fund billionaire Jerry Krohl) and he to a university position. We learn that Hilary is haunted by the daughter she gave birth to at age 15, and gave up for adoption. Her nightly prayer, and her attachment to God, stem in good measure from her wishes for the girl’s well-being.

Five years later, Spike and Hilary reunite, this time in a comically ornate hotel room during a professional conference in Venice, where they resume the affair and the conversation, each holding fast to their beliefs.

Yet much has happened in the ensuing years. She has become a respected clinician at the Krohl Institute, and along with her boss, Leo, she feels the relentless pressure to author cutting-edge research despite maintaining her belief in the divine. Hilary and her mathematical whizz-kid protégé Bo are looking at whether empathy is inherent or learned by studying 6- and 8-year-old girls. Leo warns her that “psychology as an enterprise is on its way out. We’re on a countdown to the embedded brain answering all the questions about the disembodied mind.” Spike is studying “The Physiology of High Stakes,” using saliva samples taken from world poker champions. Jerry pounces on Spike’s work, immediately sensing its applicability to his cut-throat hedge-fund business.

Kyle Cameron and Tessa Klein in The Hard Problem. Photo by Teresa Wood.

In the hands of a lesser company, The Hard Problem might veer toward a series of talking points delivered by shallow characters spouting divergent intellectual positions on human nature. The challenge of inflecting Stoppard’s characters with subtlety and depth is made even steeper by the fact that none develop an especially strong emotional relationship with any of the others.

But under Matt Torney’s adept direction, we develop quick rapport with the major characters as more than exemplars of their points of view.  They flesh out Stoppard’s quick-witted but sometimes esoteric dialog with clever insights into their deeper motivations.

We watch Tessa Klein as Hilary grows from a somewhat goofy and emotional coed into a mature professional who nonetheless reminds us at all turns of her haunting choice to “swap her baby for a doctorate.” Spike is played by Kyle Cameron as a clever cad. He’d be the first to admit that virtually all his choices are governed by his omnivorous ego. Shravan Amin as Amal shows us with his uncertain body language and speech how an obviously bright researcher can be undone by the tone-deaf timing of his ‘reveals.’

David Andrew MacDonald as Jerry is sleek but not sleazy.He repeatedly demonstrates —  in person and on his omni-present cell phone —   the killer instinct that accounts for his financial success.  But he uses his profits to found the brain institute. Is that an example of altruism, or another calculated expression of his egoism? Martin Giles as Leo balances empathy with realism. He is Jerry’s messenger. He knows what will please or anger the boss, and thus what will be funded, or not. Nancy Sun as Bo embodies the tension of an underling whose efforts to please her boss outpace the rigor of her research. They are all humans first, motivated by obvious and much less obvious forces.

Set designer Debra Booth’s superb staging is accomplished with a clever set of mostly gray modules on wheels that enable quick changes ranging from bedroom to office, lab and living room. Pushed alternately by the actors themselves and theater technicians clad in white coats, these smooth transitions give us mental pause between the eleven scenes that comprise the drama, which is performed without an intermission. In the lab scenes, giant letters spelling KROHL loom overhead. They are so big that we only see the bottom half of the letters, reminding Stoppard’s characters, and the audience, of who ultimately pulls the levers of power. Booth is aided immensely by Michael Giannitti’s subtle but effective lighting, and projected images, including a shocking mind-body lab simulation. Sound Designer and composer James Bigbee Garver uses both modern electronic music and classical  compositions to amplify the discussion of science and belief.

One could argue that the deus ex machina that concludes this fascinating play is a bit too contrived, but I for one would not. Whether you call it a miracle, coincidence, or simply the laws of probability at work, Stoppard’s endpoint is itself an important restatement of the central thesis. I left the theater no more sure of the answers but newly stimulated by the questions.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

The Hard Problem plays through February 19, 2017, at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

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