“I understood it when she explained it, but not so I could explain it to anybody else,” says Hilary, the neuropsychologist at the center of playwright Tom Stoppard’s latest work, The Hard Problem, now onstage at Court Theatre in Hyde Park.
I hate to break it to Hilary, played by the supple Chaon Cross, but if you can’t explain it to anybody else, perhaps you didn’t really understand it. And that, I’m afraid, is the truly hard problem with The Hard Problem. Despite the loving direction of Charles Newell and top-shelf performances, the play is a tough nut to crack and yields disappointingly little meat. Talk, talk, talk — followed by an easily anticipated revelation that feels contrived.
Nevertheless, the play engages the audience on the University of Chicago campus, a welcoming environment for intellectual puzzles. Inspired by what the Australian philosopher David Chalmers called the mystery of consciousness, Stoppard makes a valiant attempt to dramatize the abstract, posing the question: Is it possible to explain consciousness in scientific terms?
John Culbert’s white box set provides a fitting backdrop for exploring these ideas, shifting easily from Hilary’s bedroom to the sterile confines of the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, an interdisciplinary think tank about how we think. The institute is “elitist but in a good way,” remarks one of the characters. Having amassed millions in the world of finance, Jerry (Nathan Hosner), the institute’s eponymous founder, has channeled a portion of his fortune into the scientific enterprise. Is his motivation altruism or self-interest? That question will be asked not only of Jerry but of any human subject the institute’s researchers examine.
Those researchers include Ursula (Kate Fry makes the most out of the small role), Spike (Jürgen Hooper), Amal (Owais Ahmed), Leo (Brian McCaskill) and Bo (Emjoy Gavino). Hilary’s good looks seem to attract her colleagues as much as her intellect does. Julia (Celeste M. Cooper, with an improbable British accent) works in an adjunct role — and by coincidence, knew Hilary in high school.
The Hard Problem premiered at the National Theatre in London, and Stoppard arranged for Newell to see it there. Court Theatre has produced Stoppard’s work nine times, six times under Newell’s direction, and the playwright and director are well matched, with Newell showcasing the sharpest lines Stoppard’s cerebral writing.
The play runs without intermission, so patrons should plan to arrive early and settle in to read the program, packed with interesting information, including a thoughtful biography of Stoppard by resident dramaturg Nora Titone, who quotes the playwright about his approach: I take “pleasure in dramatizing both sides of any situation…. I put a position, I rebut it, then I refute it, then I refute the rebuttal, and then I rebut the refutation. I do this forever. Endlessly.”
Stoppard’s bio is followed by a poll of four University of Chicago professors (of philosophy, neurobiology and psychology) about whether they identify with the play’s main character as she explores human consciousness. Their replies show us all sides of the question, making them Stoppard’s intellectual soulmates.
The Hard Problem
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago (free parking adjacent)
Through April 9, 2017
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $48-$68 at Court Theatre or (773) 753-4472
Photos: Michael Brosilow