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In the Moment: The Studio Theatre’s ‘The Hard Problem’

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Studio Theatre’s production of The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard charmed me with its intellectual and ideological turmoil fueled by verbal fierceness.

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

With a shiny, contemporary veneer and Stoppard’s cleverly stylish verbal razzle dazzle about science and finance, I left the performance thinking I had been eaves-dropping on a cool late night argument on “big” issues by bright people. Issues that should matter. Issues and debate that should stay with me.

Alas, this is a trigger warning. Under the crisp rewarding direction of Matt Torney, I enjoyed the Studio Theatre’s well-executed technical production aspects and found plenty of fine performances. Yet my exhilaration dissipated. The Hard Problem’s underlying script and higher-order dialogue was “meh” to me. The big issues of science and the big issues of finance seemed lightly soldered together rather than tightly welded together. (Note: According to Studio Theatre marketing material The Hard Problem play title is a phrase coined by cognitive scientist David Chalmers to explain “the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.”)

So before you choose to read the rest of my op-ed column, you are directed to my DC Metro Theater Arts colleague Amy Kotkin’s must-read, thoughtful, and well-crafted review here:

Now for me, The Hard Problem is crammed full of talk about computers, algorithms, a not well-defined financial crises apparently costing some hedge-fund, and perhaps more jobs. It is populated by several heavy duty privileged characters; denizens who talk endlessly, with some fine wine, about “the difference between our brains and our minds, the nature of belief, and how to reconcile hard science with lived experience.” There were verbal fireworks galore that illuminated with a burst; that then fell away leaving arty emptiness.

Playwright Stoppard’s characters prattled on with great energy and intensity about the mind and the brain and high finance but only one had deep, long-lasting dimensionality for me.

One performer and her performance really moved me. Tessa Klein’s was so appealing in her portrayal of Hilary, the featured character around whom others often circle. Klein’s character had a trajectory and a most interesting journey with oomph to it as she climbed the ranks in a world where only smarts, not decency or civility, mattered. Klein was a wonder of subtle facial and expressive body expressions. She provided her character with a rich soul and beating heart. Watching Klein at work, well, her physical movement’s and verbal inflections were definitive and in the moment. Then again, let me be forthright, I was probably on her side in the concocted debates as she attempted to engage others, not just pontificate. Her Hilary was seeking reactions, not to shut-up and shut-down others as she spoke of faith, her belief in God and that there is or should be something called “shame.”

One other character was intriguing. He was the billionaire financier who was funding brain-mind research. Jerry, as portrayed by David Andrew MacDonald,  was a most loving, caring dad to a young daughter one moment and a ruthless money manager with plenty of venom the next. He too has a journey of interest including a final human gesture that ends The Hard Problem in a moment of civility with dignity.

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

Other The Hard Problem characters were soundly performed; as the one-dimensional playthings they were.

A submissive young woman who didn’t want to be too noticed and rarely talked-back. (Bo as played by Nancy Sun). When she said a “naughty” word or two, she felt obligated to apologize. When stressed or caught in a difficult situation she disappeared to smoke a cigarette.

A whip-smart, young, hedge-fund trader (Shravan Amin as Amal) who preened, rarely unsure of himself in a burgeoning computer driven world.

A cad of a graduate school cock-sure skirt-chasing professor (“Spike” portrayed by Kyle Cameron) who spews forth his views as if everyone else is merely one of his students to be lectured or laughed at.

There is also a mild mannered, middle-aged, middle manager (Martin Giles) with a soft heart willing to overlook a major faux-pas. And, add Joy Jones and Emily Kester as couple with well-placed humor and an unexpected punch that is the most physical event in the performance.

The Hard Problem is a play rich with ideas to ponder. It is a work by a long-time master of drama that enthralled me since my first sighting of Rosencrantz and Gilderstein Are Dead so many years ago followed on with a slew of great works that I admire and that have delighted me. The Hard Problem came off as a rush of brilliant words leaving few traces. I wanted to love it; but just couldn’t.

But, I give The Hard Problem its due. It did succeed in this; I wonder if our stampede into STEM education will leave folk short of humanity. Is that wrong to think? I am with the character Hilary praying next to her bed with a lit candle. Seems warmer and more believable than some non-transparent algorithm developed by an unknown coders meant to sell me products and send me fake news. What do you think?

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. 

Note: For some of The Studio Theatre material about The Hard Problem go to their website.

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