The Hard Problem, Studio Theatre

In Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem, currently running at the Studio Theatre and directed by Matt Torney, the playwright challenges his audiences to consider topics most of us would claim to know nothing about, but are tangled up with fundamental questions that most of us, again, have wrestled with at some moment in our lives.  How do we understand consciousness, the nebulous quantity of what makes us not only human, but uniquely so? How do we reckon with what science can discover and quantify, and what we may never understand at all?  What makes one person see a coincidence, and another find a desperately longed-for miracle?

You know. Typical Stoppard stuff.

Unsurprisingly, The Hard Problem is not an easy play, either for actors or for audiences.  Stoppard has no final answer to the problems he poses, and at times, the play has a hard time making its characters' discursive reckonings with consciousness, human psychology, and financial prospecting matter to the audience.  Torney's ensemble of actors do admirable work at laying out the intricate scientific arguments that provide the framework of the play. As Hilary, the surprisingly theistic scientist at the center of The Hard Problem, Tessa Klein does the production's heavy lifting. It's a testament to her work and the work of other ensemble members like Kyle Cameron, Shravan Amin, and Nancy Sun that we can follow their intellectual labor clearly--the ensemble does, however, struggle with convincing us that these debates are as viscerally vital to them as they need to be to genuinely forge a connection with the audience.

Stoppard has been branded in the past as a playwright who creates intellectually impressive plays that lack heart; Torney's production does create the scaffolding necessary to hang all of these complex ideas upon, but the heart of the play isn't as carefully laid bare for the audience.  Instead, the production invites more rational analysis than it does passionate reaction.  Rather than emotionally investing in the characters, I found myself deconstructing Stoppard's dramaturgy as the play progressed, as interested in the workings of the story structure as the characters were in the mind or the financial market.

This being said, several days have passed between my seeing Torney's production and writing about it here, and I'm still wrestling with the ideas of this play. I've returned to older treatments of similar themes by Stoppard (Jumpers, most notably, and Rock 'n' Roll) and been interested in the way these themes have continued to percolate in his mind over the years with different results.  Even though The Hard Problem is not Stoppard's best, it can nevertheless enrich my own accumulated theatrical experience, and I'm grateful to have seen it here in DC.


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