Thursday, October 27, 2016

"The Hard Problem"

The Hard Problem
Tom Stoppard

Dan Clegg as Spike & Brenda Meaney as Hilary
When a baby is born, does the human come into the world ready to put the welfare of others ahead of self; or is the infant already geared up to look out for self above all else?  Is the consciousness that the baby-turned-toddler-turned-child eventually acquires a result of its more objective, computer-like brain, or does that sense of self and unique awareness of the world around the child emanate from some other source?  And to complicate matters more, does a higher being (e.g., God) have a hand in any of this?

Questions like these have been asked all the way back to Aristotle and Plato and have intrigued and plagued scientists, philosophers, and scholars of religion ever since.  Determining the origin as well as the whys and wherefores of the human consciousness has been tagged “the hard problem.”  The prolific and famed playwright Tom Stoppard has jumped wholeheartedly into this age-old debate in his latest play by the same name.  The Hard Problem is a heady, wordy one hundred minutes that is populated not only with lots of facts, theories, and deep explanations but also with plenty of humor, romance, mystery, and surprises.    As presented by The American Conservatory Theatre and directed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff, Stoppard’s play is never slow or boring even with all its big words and rattling off of facts and figures.  Its characters are universally interesting and fascinating, and there is plenty of fodder provided for further questioning and discussion long after the last bow.

Through the characters he introduces, Tom Stoppard cleverly presents at least three possible ways of approaching “the hard problem.”  By placing the story in Great Britain, he also is able to construct word-filled arguments and individual stories with the sorted rhythms, variations of tones and pitches, and even different instrument sounds that the various British as well as Indian and Chinese accents afford.  The result is a musical cacophony of voices that at times wonderfully clash and at other times blend into collegial, friendship, and/or romantic harmony of differing perspectives and backgrounds.

Like a blaring trumpet, Dan Clegg as the handsome, cocky, but easily likeable Spike represents the position that consciousness has developed through evolution and is part of the survival of the fittest, being a by-product of the brain’s developing complexity through the millennia.  He is relentless and loud in his position and particularly disdains with outward cynicism any idea that there might be a God that intervenes into the natural order of things as established by Darwin.  Mr. Clegg is a mixture of serious, silly, and sexy in his efforts to convince others of his firm belief system, sometimes pulling out a cockney accent that sits in juxtaposition against his regular, fast-clip British tongue of the modern thirty-something, fast-paced Londoner.

Brenda Meaney (Hilary) & Vandit Bhatt (Amahl)
Pounding like a big bass drum is Amahl (Vanditt Bhatt) who charges into any scene with full voice and with the fury of a pit bull dog.  With angry-sounding vigor, he purports the idea that the brain is simply a beautiful computer and that human consciousness is somehow just the result of all the brain’s billions of electrical charges and connections.  He too has a big ego surrounding his bombastic blasts of opinions, including the idea that computers themselves are actually evolving to be much superior in every way to the human brain.  Mr. Bhatt, for all his blustery ways, provides one of the evening’s biggest guffaws when he flat out faints over a funny encounter with a man he tries too hard to impress.

Brenda Meaney
Not buying either the evolution theory of her lover Spike or the brain-as-computer theory of her job-seeking competitor, Amahl, is the quieter but equally intense Hilary.  She is a kind of woodwind voice that eases in with steady reasoning but also with nuanced tones that never dominate but that in the end, stand out with a unique delivery and message.  Brenda Meaney plays with great depth and skilled subtlety this principal protagonist of Stoppard’s story.  Hilary wants a job at the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science and wins it over the brainy, aggressive Amahl by pointing out to the hiring manager (Anthony Fusco as Leo) that although computers may be able to think and to play brilliant chess, they do not have the consciousness to care if they win or lose (as do humans).  Hilary gets the job and begins a multi-year journey to find a way to prove that humans are more than what the neurons of the brain produce. 

And as he weaves the back-and-forths of these three opinions throughout the overall story of Hilary, Spike, and Amahl as well as of their colleagues, lovers, and bosses, Tom Stoppard explicitly leaves audience members to draw their own conclusions about ‘the hard problem.’  However, he does implicitly tip his hand through his treatment of Hilary.  To her, he awards the biggest dose of altruism -- of believing humans at the core are here to help others.  He does so by giving her humility, grace, and dignity to complement her fervent drive and evident smarts.  Through her demonstrated, deep integrity, he submits her as one who is more than willing to sacrifice herself in order to save a cherished colleague's career and to show little-to-no regret in doing so.  He also does nothing to ridicule the fact that she nightly kneels in prayer before going to bed (even right after making love with her non-believing lover), and he does not let us forget that she sincerely believes that maybe there are coincidences that cannot be explained and that in fact might be miracles. 

Brenda Meaney excels in being a believable, sexy, highly intelligent Hilary who also convinces us that she is sincere and not sappy in her hope that there is a God who might be listening to her nightly solicitations.  Bringing into some form of her consciousness the whereabouts of a child she once gave up as a teenager for adoption is all she seeks.  Stoppard provides a path in keeping with her own theory where this might just be possible.

Each of the others in this staged orchestra assembled at ACT’s West Coast premiere of The Hard Problem brings a singular personality that leaves a lasting, unique impression.  Mike Ryan is the wildly successful hedge fund investor, Jerry Krohl, who has used some of the fortune he has won legally gambling in the marketplace with others’ moneys in order to establish the brain research center now carrying his name.  As such, he is an outward egotist with much bass horn bravado in his bigger-than-life speech and stance but also an egotist who does eventually show some altruistic heart.

Brenda Meaney (Hilary) and Narea Kang (Bo)
Narea Kang is the Chinese-born, Cambridge mathematical whiz, Bo, who joins Hilary’s team and constructs what seems as a break-through study to answer the chicken-egg question of which came first:  ego-drive or altruism.  Her Bo is complicated and not easily deciphered even though she is a strong scientific voice for formulaic explanations of psychological development.  She becomes the lover of Amahl but has a secret love that leads her down a path that defies all logic and professional ethics, hoping to enhance that person’s career and possibly her own interests of the heart.  Ms. Kang plays all sides of this complex puzzle with astute prowess.

Rounding out the key persona are the bassoon-voiced, mostly serious-faced researcher Ursula (Stacy Ross) and her piccolo-prancing, Pilates-instructing life partner, Julia (Safiya Fredericks) -- the lighter, more joyous, and fun half of their pairing.  Carmen Steele is Cathy Krohl, the thirteen-year-old daughter of Jerry and a key to the mounting question how much miracles may in fact play in a world dominated by the hard sciences.

Andrew Boyce has created an eye-popping scenic design where the numerous locales and their fixtures enter and exit with the ease of gigantic floating panels against the backdrop of a mammoth projection screen.  That a heavenly power is somehow a bias of Stoppard’s thinking is reinforced in Mr. Boyce’s overall design and in Russell H. Champa’s exquisite, masterfully timed lighting.  Angelic, fluffy clouds dominate the background screen that smack of some power greater than the human ones that created the scenes’ foreground fixtures of ultra-modern corporate offices and upscale apartments.  Two tree trunks touch and climb like a Jacob’s ladder through a hole in the ceiling, from which glowing light sometimes appears just when the story needs a bit of miraculous influence.  And the sound design and original music of Brendan Aanes (with Nick Perloff-Giles also contributing to the score) put the finishing touches on smooth transitions and appropriate mood-setting throughout.

So are we inherently altruistic or do we help others as a means of ultimately helping ourselves?  Hilary’s final act of integrity seems to give away the playwright’s bias toward the former.  However, when we walk out of the theatre having just seen how happy she is not only because of an unexpected personal miracle but also because she is about to venture into a new, highly desired next career step thanks to a personal sacrifice she made for another’s well-being, Tom Stoppard seems to be saying to us with a smirk that there are in fact no easy answers to hard problems.

Rating: 5 E

The Hard Problem continues through November 13, 2016, on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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