By David Walters
It’s nice that there is always a goodie bag of take-aways in a Stoppard play.
It’s been 12 years since we’ve had one, stateside. About time.
The Hard Problem that is now being presented at Lincoln Center Mitzi Newhouse Theater is a revamp of the London production. Having read the reviews of that, I think that they’ve made it much clearer and accessible. Do go for the Stoppardian mind and heart journey that only he can deliver.
Sir Tom Stoppard has said that he believes, “An evening at the theater is an evening at a story.”
Sometimes it’s hard to accept that he really believes what he said as he goes so far beyond that.
But, that aside, The Hard Problem is a story about a mother, Hilary, (Adelaide Clemens), who 13 years earlier had a baby when she was 15 and gave it up for adoption due to societal pressure and a feeling of “baby shame.” She suffers from guilt about that decision, prays nightly on her knees to God to keep her child happy and makes a birthday cake every year to celebrate the child that she has never known.
That is the heart of the story.
But a Stoppard play is never about one thing. It is always a tsunami of overwhelming thought stimulation that you voluntarily dive into and upon emerging feel lucky if your mind is still half way clear. It envelopes you in its audacity of ideas, leaving the feeling that you’ve been in a graduate lecture in a field that was neither your major nor your minor. It only relies on story and character as lifeboats to carry the observer through these heady waters teaming with life.
Now the cerebral half of the story: The problem of consciousness and the meaning and possibility of altruism. Science says altruism has a secret agenda. Hilary doesn’t believe it to be true.
Why do we as a species perform altruistic acts for no discernible gain, doing good for its own sake? Are we strictly chemical machines or are our true natures God-infused beings?
This is what is referred to, scientifically, as the “hard problem” of trying to understand what consciousness is.
When Artificial Intelligence is finally capable of full mental and physical functionality, there will still be experience, distinct from function, that we now label consciousness. Can an A.I. be sad or mad that they lost a chess game?
I’m not going to go deeper than that, as there are miles of ideas in this 100 minute no intermission play, from mathematically there not having been enough time for us to have evolved as a species, to the altruism of vampire bats. All these ideas revolving around the existence of God.
“The God idea shoves itself to the front like a doctor at the scene of an accident, because when you come right down to it, the body is made of things, and things don’t have thoughts.”
There are layers of psychology, philosophy, science and emotional connection here to thrill the thinking theater goers mind for months of rumination.
The Hard Problem – Written by Tom Stoppard; Directed by Jack O’Brien
WITH: Eshan Bajpay (Amal), Adelaide Clemens (Hilary), John Patrick Doherty (Ensemble), Nina Grollman (Julia), Katie Beth Hall (Cathy), Eleanor Handley (Ensemble), Olivia Hebert (Ensemble), Chris O’Shea (Spike), Robert Petkoff (Leo), Tara Summers (Ursula), Jon Tenney (Jerry), Karoline Xu (Bo).
Sets by David Rockwell, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Japhy Weideman, sound by Marc Salzberg, original music by Bob James
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center; 212-239-6200, lct.org. Running time: 100 minutes.