Review: “The Hard Problem” at the American Conservatory Theatre

The American Conservatory Theatre’s production of Indian Ink, the previous Tom Stoppard piece to play in San Francisco, ranks among the worst things I saw in 2015. One might thus be able to understand my reluctance at attending The Hard Problem, the company’s newest production of a Stoppard opus, especially given the play’s rather tepid reception during its London premiere. However, I am pleased to report that The Hard Problem is a very fine evening of theatre. It’s not the best thing that either the Conservatory or Stoppard has done, but a solid two-base hit that takes Stoppard’s own hyper-intellectualism and boils it down for a broader audience.

The plot takes place over 5 or so years, but begins with Hillary, a psychology graduate who wins a spot at a prestigious institute in order to study the brain. As she develops an experiment to determine whether people are naturally good or they learn morality, she has to confront her faith and her past while seeking to change the future. The sprawling plot also includes several side plots, including her on-again-off-again relationship with her firmly scientific materialist former academic advisor as well as the personal plight of the owner of the research institute. Throughout the 100-minute runtime, much of the dialogue is devoted to scientific and philosophical discussion about the nature of morality. This should come as no surprise to those familiar with Stoppard, but one should know that they need to turn their brain on in order to properly enjoy the show.

Stoppard tends to write in one of two veins. The first is in the Hegelian mode, usually involving historical or scientific context, such as the British Raj in Indian Ink or ornithology in Arcadia, in order to address philosophical concerns. The second is in the abstract, which involves reality-blurring parables that mirror the works of Ionesco or Beckett in their bizarre humor and formal absurdity. The Hard Problem is decidedly written in the first (and less entertaining) style, but thankfully this time Stoppard no longer depends on the audience to have a textbook understanding of its central topic. As neurophysiology is, unlike Indian history or the study of birds, a topic that almost nobody has a firm grasp on, the play explains its own subject as it goes along.

This is very refreshing, as it no longer requires you to read several hundred pages of science or history in preparation for going to the theatre. Also unique to this piece is the direct confrontation of its own ideas. Instead of using history or science in order to indirectly address complex ideas, the characters address and directly discuss the philosophy of human morality. This may make The Hard Problem one of the least “intelligent” of Stoppard’s plays (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one), but it at least allows the audience to feel like they have the upper hand instead of just trying to comprehend what the point of it all is. As always, the central discussions are interesting and balanced and leave you feeling like you just went to a particularly filling college lecture.

As a play, it’s perhaps not particularly tightly wound, jumping forward in time frequently and almost without warning and featuring characters that have very little complexity (though you’d have a hard time convincing me that this wasn’t intentional as it allows for certain thematic elements to play out in front of the audience’s eyes). Unlike Stoppard’s finest work, if you remove the discussion you aren’t left with a very good play. Thankfully, however, the discussion is there in full force, and it’s fascinating and bizarrely thrilling.

The American Conservatory Theatre’s production of The Hard Problem is very much in the vein of typical productions from the company: slick, highly professional, and not very deep. Director Carey Perloff has a longstanding relationship with Stoppard plays, but you’d never guess it from her staging, which lacks any kind of force. The play is deprived of the emotional element, but Perloff doesn’t even try to imbue a sense of urgency or feeling into the proceedings. The large cast is all very polished, but felt to me like their understanding of the material was rather rudimentary. The exception to this is Brenda Meaney, who plays Hillary with grace, delicacy, and a strong depth of feeling. Andrey Boyce’s scenic design is an ultra-modern marvel.

The Hard Problem might be better on paper than onstage, but it’s a filling evening of theatre for those looking for something intellectual.

The Hard Problem plays in San Francisco through November 13. Tickets and information available here.

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