People keep on claiming the 2015 “The Hard Problem” is Sir Tom Stoppard’s first new play since 2006’s ode to the crazy diamond Syd Barrett and the Czech Spring of 1968,”Rock And Roll,” and if they mean a play written for the theatre they may have a point, but if the claim is Stoppard had writer’s block, he hadn’t. Four screenplays and a radio play to Pink Floyd called “Darkside” was taking up his time. But still, yeah, three years after it opened at London’s National, whether the hard problem is writer’s block or age or just the nature of the play, a desire to minimize his maximized writing, to cut the fat and trim the lean, that backfires, something isn’t quite right.
To quote the always quotable Tom Stoppard, “The Hard Problem,” is a solution for the question of whether we think outside the brain, with the mind, or are we a series of hardwired reactions, and since either way it feels like thinking, then how do we think since “the body is made of things, and things don’t have thought,” therefore are we jazzed up machines or god’s children? That is what Stoppard has on his mind in “The Hard Problem,” at the Mitzi Playhouse, still in previews, one of his worst plays to date and still pretty darn good.
Stoppard is 81 years old, and he was 78 when “The Hard Problem” was first produced at the National. in 2015. And it shows. It showed in “Rock And Roll,” it showed in “The Coast Of Utopia,” it showed in bad Broadway productions of two of his greatest plays, “Arcadia” and “The Real Thing,” it just shows.
It’s Sunday morning and no one has anything better to do, so let’s grade the Stoppard cannon – just the ones I know…
1966: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – A
1974: Travesties – A
1975: Three Men in a Boat – B+
1982: The Real Thing – A+
1985: Brazil – A+
1987: Empire of the Sun – A
1988: Hapgood – A-
1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – C+
1993: Arcadia – A+
1995: Indian Ink – A
1997: The Invention of Love – A+
1998: Shakespeare in Love – B+
1990: The Russia House – B+
2002: The Coast of Utopia trilogy – A-
Voyage – A
Shipwreck – B+
Salvage – B+
2006: Rock ‘n’ Roll – B+
2013: Darkside – A
2015: The Hard Problem – B+
Two things, I am grading on a Stoppard curve, if I wasn’t, much like my feelings for Dennis Potter, there would be nothing lower than an “A”. The other thing I just mentioned: I haven’t seen everything, “Jumpers” is a biggie to be missing. Also, for the plays the grade is based upon the production I’ve seen. For instance, Arcadia. The 1993 production at the Royal National sounds mind boggling: directed by Trevor Nunn with Rufus Sewell (so great in the Amazon series “The Man In The High Castle”) as Septimus Hodge, Felicity Kendal, CBE (I would kill to see this wonderful actress on stage -she is the equal of any Dame you care to throw a brick at) ) as Hannah Jarvis, Bill Nighy as Bernard Nightingale, Emma Fielding as Thomasina Coverly. Whether it was or not I can only guess, for absolutely certain the 1995 production at Lincoln Center is one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life. I saw it four times. The unspeakable 2011 Broadway made me wonder if I’d overestimated the play all these years.
But you can’t blame “The Hard Problem” on the production. It is bad because it is bad, except, of course, it isn’t bad. It is bad compared to “Arcadia” or “The Real Thing,” it is genius compared to, say, Aaron Sorkin’s current reduction of “To Kill A Mockingbird” (which isn’t terrible itself) and Shakespeare on God compared to the books of more or less every musical on Broadway. But it isn’t, strictly speaking, smart enough. Based around a punchline that is beyond credibility on any level whatsoever.
OK, Hilary (performed with a luminous beauty by Adelaide Clemens) is a college student applying and getting a job at the Krohl institute for brain science while arguing with her lover and mentor Spike (Chris O’Shea -more hard body than problem) with Spike taking the pro brain as high wired computer and Hilary taking the things don’t think side, at least since she gave away her daughter for adoption when Hilary was fifteen years old and prays for her daughter’s well being every day. It all goes pear shaped with the 2009 great recession, and concludes with a great coincidence that proves at least some prayers come true.
Let’s talk about coincidence, chance, and fate. Coincidence is if I am walking across Broadway and get run over by a car and the driver is my ex-girlfriend. That’s a coincidence. Chance? Chance is if I run across Broadway and get run over by a car and my ex-girlfriend happens to see it. Fate? Fate is I see the ex across Broadway and go running against the lights to speak to her and get run over by a car. Fate is about my character and fate is in the nature and the heart of tragedy. Coincidence is the building blocks of fate. And chance is fate or coincidence without self-awareness. Chance simply isn’t dramatic. Chance is like winning the lottery, we add in the human interest because the facts alone tells us nothing. Hilary’s conclusion is not fate, instead Stoppard sells us on it being coincidence but it isn’t, it is chance. The plot rests on a Deus ex machina
If Spike Vs Hilary is the essential conflict, there are others, as Amal, up for the same position, is hired by Jerry Krohl ((Jon Tenney) himself, and Amal’s girlfriend Bo (Karoline Xu) is hired by Hilary’s boss Leo (Robert Petkoff) is hired to assist Hilary. In an echo of “Arcadia,” the secondary plot hinges on a paper published and wrong. If this sounds dry, well, it isn’t, pacing and interest are not problems here, but rather the tick tock is overexposed with things that need and deserve to be fleshed out more. It’s as though “Romeo And Juliet” began right after the Queen Mab monologue.
“The Hard Problem” goes for 90 minutes with no intermission (Stoppard has forgotten that people of his age need toilet breaks, so it should be no coincidence dry cleaners do good business from “The Hard Problem” punters -they should do a study) and, Tom’s claims notwithstanding, it should be twice as long. Stoppard fails to sell his story with the detail it needs to get his characters to come to life, because he doesn’t take the time to show the inbetween parts; there’s too much exposition. There are a nice handful of characters, but none of them stand out well enough, there is a kind of doubling effect where Hilary is doubled by Bo, Spike is doubled by Amal. Amal alone, played by Esphan Bajpay, has no inner life, Spike almost does but, really, compare him to Bernard Nightingale and what do you find?
It is still a good play, thought provoking, intelligent, beautifully presented with some wonderful pieces of language, and effortlessly Stoppardian. The thought process is vetting, altruism and maternal love as survival of the fttest is a fascinating side trip -or is it main trip? in a search for God that leads to an apt conclusion. But it is missing something, it has heart and thought, but its soul is a dusty, is as though he wrote short cuts where there were none. Every scene, even the first, seems to be a coming to an end of something we haven’t seen but only been told about because Stoppard doesn’t want to write the play he has written. As written, it is a highly entertaining 90 minutes, it is swift footed. enjoyable, and discusses interesting ideas very well. Interesting but not great ideas. Stoppard once wrote “if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose?” -and then explains how to do it through iteration and got invited to give a lecture to mathematicians for his troubles. Or how about “what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in”? Sure, that’s the best of the best but even so, his competition must be himself. I wish he’d take another run at it…
I consider Stoppard among the very greatest playwrights. He may not have a “Hamlet” or “Romeo And Juliet” to his name, but “Arcadia” is nearly the equal of my favorite comedy of all time, “Twelfth Night” -a play that, at the very least, is a perfect example of how coincidences work. “The Hard Part” is a disappointment the way that Let It Be is a disappointment. It is a disappointment up to the part where it is the Beatles (or Stoppard) doing it, and once it becomes anyone else it becomes a great piece of work.
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