Dance in Review

The Chicago premiere of a Tom Stoppard play is one of the most hotly anticipated events of this season. We’re never short for great Stoppard productions in this town, but The Hard Problem was Stoppard’s first new play in nine years when it debuted in 2015, and since Court Theatre’s Charlie Newell can be trusted to mount a strong production, the author is undoubtedly the main draw. Some of his best-known plays, such as the recently produced Travesties and Arcadia, were extremely complicated, sprawling works which required the audience to have a sizable pre-existing knowledge of artistic movements and the interplay between culture and technology, but The Hard Problem, as the title states, zeroes in on a single issue which, depending on which side of it you fall on, might not really seem to be a problem at all. Whether the mind is a function of the brain or has an ethereal quality is not something Stoppard attempts to answer definitively, but the degree to which this play interests you will largely depend on your investment in the debate.

Chaon Cross owns the part of Hilary, the only fully three-dimensional character in the play. A young psychologist whose path in life has had some unexpected hiccups, Hilary is dependent on Spike (Jürgen Hooper), an evolutionary biologist, to help her fake the mathematical credentials she needs to get a job with the Krohl Institute, a research lab dedicated to solving the mind-body problem. She doesn’t even particularly want to work there, but it was the only place she applied to and heard back from. Spike is an utterly noxious, self-justifying proponent of evolutionary psychology, but it seems to be more than just a need to be perceived as good at data processing which causes Hilary to keep inviting him into her bed. Anyway, it turns out that Leo (Brian McCaskill), the man running the part of the Krohl Institute Hilary’s interested in, shares her preference for psychology over neurology, and she gets the job on her own merits.

The Krohl Institute was created by Jerry Krohl (Nathan Hosner), a billionaire hedge fund manager, to help him gain an edge over other traders. Krohl himself doesn’t really care whether the brain is a meat computer or a conduit for the sublime; he just wants to eliminate uncertainty in practical matters. Early on, we meet Amal (Owais Ahmed), a mathematician who holds the position that the soul is flesh and whom Krohl later punishes for publicly predicting the 2008 crash instead of keeping it close to the vest. Amal’s growing disillusion with humans’ capacity for rational thought is driven largely by what he sees happening in the stock market, but he’s reluctant to fall into line with Hilary’s belief that this leaves us with no alternatives but belief in some kind of divinity.

The plot concerns Hilary’s struggle with a job that was never a good fit for her while her entire field appears to be in jeopardy. But Stoppard’s interest seems to be in how nobody really wants to acknowledge the true implications of their belief system, whatever that happens to be. Hilary is a less forceful arguer than Spike, but Newell’s centering of her on stage almost throughout the show and Cross’s commitment to her full range of emotions prevent us from dismissing her. Stoppard has also made her opponents repulsive Thersites-like characters, while Hilary’s on-stage ally is the kind-hearted, idealistic Bo (Emjoy Gavino). John Culbert’s scenic design doesn’t give them very many hiding places, which is perhaps why they resort to vicious verbal, and eventually, physical confrontations to make their points.

If Stoppard’s goal was to show how the debate over the hard problem spills out of sealed realms such as universities and think tanks to strike at peoples’ deepest vulnerabilities, the flatness of the other characters prevents him from quite getting there. However, he does a good enough job of illustrating his point for us to understand it. A great many people love Stoppard and Court Theatre simply for having these conversations, with no expectation the problem will be resolved. Pointing out how divorced from real life rationalism and rationalizations are is enough to make a fruitful evening, and getting to experience it being put so eloquently by fine actors is a bonus.

Recommended

The Hard Problem plays at Court Theatre through April 9, with performances on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Running time is one hour and forty minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $48–68; to order, call 773-753-4472 or visit CourtTheatre.org. For more information, see TheatreinChicago.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

 

 

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