“The Hard Problem” is the title of Tom Stoppard’s first new play since 2006’s “Rock ’n’ Roll,” and it refers to the thorny issue of consciousness. We have brains, but where — and what — exactly is the mind?
Of course, Stoppard can write a play about this, and not just because the wily writer opens his play with sexy, young intellectuals bantering half-nude in bed.
That doesn’t hurt, though, and it’s on point as an appealing young woman named Hilary and her jauntily abrasive tutor Spike expand their arguments into egoism and altruism, and even into plain old good and bad. Mothers, for instance: Is all that love generous and divine, or is it Darwinian survival of the species?
As the story zooms forward into Hilary’s career with a prestigious brain institute (a not entirely altruistic wing of a rapacious investment firm), Stoppard’s rooting interest is clearly with Hilary. Amid a group of science wonks and high-finance manipulators, Hilary has the human sparks of hope and joy and sadness, radiantly captured by actress Tessa Klein in Studio Theatre’s area premiere of the play.
“The Hard Problem” is clever, and if it’s not on the incandescent level of Stoppard’s great works from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” to “Arcadia,” it’s only because few contemporary writers have set the bar higher. The dialogue is more debate-y than usual, yet the audience at Sunday’s opening listened raptly as the British characters argue about everything from neuroscience to prayer and the “prisoner’s dilemma” (if two criminals are caught and separated, will they come out better if they look out for themselves?).
The only really nuanced human face on these problems is Hilary’s, and Klein is the ace in Matt Torney’s polished but not always fully animated production. The actors get the ideas across but often seem like they’ve just picked up this second language steeped in probabilities and academic imperatives. The flaw in the performance seems to line up with the weakness in the script. Too often the talk feels brittle.
As played by Klein, though, Hilary owns her ideas down to her soul. Fueled by a fervent curiosity that Klein registers in inspired smiles and restrained tears, Hilary grapples with both science and faith. Her nightly prayers bother Spike (Kyle Cameron), whose “rational” principles often come across as skin-deep attitudes built on science, formulas and (although he might not admit it) accepted social convention. That’s the sort of friction that makes the play run.
So does Hilary’s melancholy backstory, which involves the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was only 15. (Love is a theme: Several characters have crushes on Hilary.) The play’s crisis turns on a flawed scholarly paper co-authored by Hilary and Bo (Nancy Sun), an idealistic young mathematician who switched from the company’s finance wing because, as she puts it, “The money was good, but it wasn’t good money.” The design of Stoppard’s puzzle is elegant as good people do bad things for noble reasons, and as hardhearted, numbers-oriented characters turn out to have the capacity for healing gestures.
Torney’s production has a clean, sharp look: Debra Booth’s simple set gives us beds for bedrooms and a grand corporate name on the back wall when we’re in the imposing gray lair of the institute. The imbalance is in the performances; Cameron isn’t quite convincing as the unlikable Spike, and David Andrew MacDonald is flatly, drably rude as the institute’s domineering, egocentric owner until very late in the play. Shravan Amin puts flesh-and-blood earnestness into the young, hotshot scientist Amal, but most of the acting doesn’t seem settled yet.
Also nagging is that the play’s financial angle gets short shrift; Stoppard’s puckish observation about the emotional irrationality of markets ought to pack more of a complementary punch. Still, the play’s logical shape is impressive as Stoppard creates high-minded dialogue about coincidence and miracles, then toys with the ideas dramatically (no spoiler here). And if Studio – which has a long, proud history with Stoppard — hasn’t quite made a great show of it, the consistent playful thoughtfulness of “The Hard Problem” pays worthwhile dividends.
The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Matt Torney. Set, Debra Booth; Costumes, Sarah Cubbage; lights, Michael Giannitti; sound design and compositions; James Bigbee Garver; Dialect Coach, Elizabeth Forte Alman. With Tessa Klein, Kyle Cameron, Shravan Amin, David Andrew Macdonald, Martin Giles, Emily Kester, Joy Jones, Katie Beth Hall, Nancy Sun and Nancy Robinette. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through Feb. 19 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets $52-$90, subject to change.. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.