Review of Lincoln Center Theater's The Hard Problem at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    November 19, 2018
    Review by:
    David Walters

    It’s nice that there is always a goodie bag of take-aways in a Tom 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 Theater's Mitzi E. 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 halfway 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 AI is finally capable of full mental and physical functionality, there will still be experience, distinct from function, that we now label consciousness. Can an AI 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 theatregoer's mind for months of rumination.

    (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

    "It’s a story that in itself offers some ingenious arguments and counterarguments for the play’s central debate."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "The problem with Tom Stoppard’s new play, his first in nearly a decade, is that it isn’t hard enough. That is an unexpected complaint to lodge against this great writer—whose deservedly high standing has been built on such dazzlingly intellectual offerings as ArcadiaTravesties and The Coast of Utopia—especially when the subject of The Hard Problem is so literally brainy: The title refers to the difficulty of accounting for human consciousness and morality, and the play’s main characters are cognitive scientists."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "A true believer does battle with the true scientists in a surprisingly sentimental play starring Jon Tenney and Adelaide Clemens."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "When the most dramatically urgent line of a play consists of the request, "Explain consciousness," you know you're watching something written by Tom Stoppard. The latest work from the celebrated playwright is a typically brain-stretching intellectual exercise trading more in theoretical concepts than flesh-and-blood drama. In the past, Stoppard has been able to balance these elements to commanding effect with such acclaimed works as Arcadia and The Real Thing. Unfortunately, The Hard Problem, receiving its New York premiere in a Lincoln Center Theater production three years after its London debut, represents a minor effort unlikely to have the lasting appeal of those predecessors."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - Time Out - The Wrap - Hollywood Reporter