By Tristan Lejeune
Drat. And I had such high hopes for this one, too.
Tom Stoppard was one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, and he used to have such brilliant, thought-provoking things to say. He still might have, despite Studio Theatre’s thoroughly disappointing The Hard Problem, but, as its characters would point out, there’s little evidence to back that up.
Hilary (Tessa Klein) is a psychology researcher haunted by memories of the daughter she gave up for adoption years ago (are you groaning yet?). On the strength of a charismatic (read: improbable) job interview, she and her considerable philosophical baggage land at the prestigious Krohl Institute. The Krohl the kind of neuro-bio facility where the billionaire boss wears blue jeans and velvet loafers while destroying the world’s economy over the phone, but even its staffers balk when Hilary starts looking for God in her work.
All of which is a launching pad for what the The Hard Problem really wants to spend its time on: Hilary and her coworkers, friends, and lovers discussing and arguing about consciousness, morality, and the frontiers of brain science. Well and good, but damned if they say much that’s fresh or interesting.
The Hard Problem is the first hard miss of 2017 D.C. theatre. It isn’t awful: The crew is committed, and there are certainly dumber plays out there. But director Matt Torney can’t save a one-act play that feels three acts long, but only has about three scenes’ worth of ideas.
Not all British accents are created equal, and there are some shaky ones up there. Still, I had no trouble believing Klein as the “Cartesian dualist” scientist, even if the role is saddled with abandonment issues that come across as sexist by the time they’re done. Equally authentic are Kyle Cameron as Hilary’s tutor/lover Spike (no comment), ever with the patronizing lecture (see above re: sexist), and David Andrew MacDonald as Krohl himself. These two are ever ready to mansplain the sympathetic fallacy to the women of the piece.
Lights from Michael Giannitti and sound by James Bigbee Garver bestow a proper sense of scale. Costume designer Sarah Cubbage tells as much of the story as anyone else, and particularly impressive are the sets from Debra Booth, studies in doing more with less.
There just isn’t enough There there, which, from the writer of Jumpers and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is truly shocking. I realize those shows are 45 years old, but audiences could learn more from a revival of one of them than they ever might from new material such as this.
The frontiers of brain science are thrilling to consider. Add philosophical questions about the existence of God and we should have a home run. But The Hard Problem doesn’t play out — somewhere in the alchemy of theatre, the math got too hard.