Back in mid-January the Boy sent me a message on facebook with a review of “The Hard Problem”, a link without context. Not a particularly glowing review, but reading the summary of the play, I immediately messaged back “Yes please”. His reply to that? “Yeah that’s what I thought”.
So what’s the story that immediately had us going, that spoke to us on a deeply personal level and inspired such immediate desire to see the show? “The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard is the story of a young psychology researcher grappling with the ‘hard problem’ of defining consciousness. The play explores the difference between the way our brains function on a biological level and the way that our minds work on a psychological level. There is much discussion on the nature of belief, and how to reconcile science with a belief in something bigger than ourselves.
I know. It sounds super sexy. Except to the two of us, it kind of is. And beyond the described summary of the play, it touches on how intelligent young people are drawn into the world of hedge funds and banking by the money, the nature of working in that environment, the pressures of having to publish research regularly in order to maintain funding if you’re a scientist, and the temptation and danger of falsifying data. As a person who has studied science, and works in a scientific environment but who is also a person of strong belief, with a fiancé working in finance who does not believe…it’s like this play was made to address all the topics that intrigue us in higher level conversations as a couple. It also doesn’t hurt that one of the first discussions in the play is about the prisoner’s dilemma, something that the Boy and I had heard discussed on a Radiolab episode about goodness/altruism that was fascinating (as in, I highly recommend you go listen to the episode – particularly the third part).
It did not hurt that the production felt so good as well – after coming off of the iffy British accents from King Charles III, this felt much more natural – more effortlessly British and not in a put-upon-theater way. The boy marveled at the box of Shreddies which sat on a table in one scene – a second-tier English breakfast cereal, but one that actually exists. Using him as my gauge, I can say that the academic discussions were accurate as well. All of the little things in the play felt naturally of the place which they were meant to occupy.
The lead actress – Tessa Klein as Hilary – was wonderful. It’s a difficult role as she is in nearly every scene and has to portray this outwardly confident, inwardly insecure woman who is trying her best to rise above an indiscretion in her past. She’s trying to prove to herself and to the world that it’s possible to have beliefs, and to believe in goodness, and also in science. And she is just brilliant in her portrayal, in every sense of the word. She draws the eye each time she’s on stage like a light and her emotional portrayals are compelling. The staging is also pretty great – simple and succinct. Bedrooms are portrayed by beds and a bedside table. Offices are glass doors and a desk in front of a large corporate logo. It’s more the way that the actors use the space than the things that are in them.
I feel like the other reviews I’ve read for this show are sort of blah, which makes me sad. But perhaps it’s because most theater-goers and critics are not highly invested in one or more of the plot areas. So, if you are a scientist, if you are a person of religious belief who is ok with being challenged, if you are a person without belief who is curious about why people believe, if you are interested in altruism as a topic, if you have worked in high finance – this is a show you will enjoy immensely. If you don’t easily fit into one of those categories, it’s also possible that you will like “The Hard Problem”, but I can’t guarantee it.