When you go to see a play by Tom Stoppard you can usually count on being intellectually stimulated. He is at it again with “The Hard Problem,” a Lincoln Center Theater presentation at its Mitzi E. Newhouse venue. A barrage of ideas related to human existence raised by Stoppard is given voice by an excellent cast, and your brain will be exercised paying close attention.
Adelaide Clemens is giving a performance that is among the season’s finest in the role of Hilary, a sympathetic researcher seeking a job with a think tank called Krohl Institute for Brain Science. First we see her in the company of her dogmatic university mentor Spike (Chris O’Shea), who likes to sound off arrogantly on his theories. We expect to soon see them in bed together, and we do.
Hilary, very earnest and talented, does get a job at the think tank, which is exploring the work of the brain and its relationship with human behavioral patterns. It is heady stuff, to be sure, and along the way there is talk about motivation, self-serving altruism, mathematical studies, physicality, religion, genetics and evolution.
Among the characters is wealthy Jerry Krohl (Jon Tenney), who is a brash and often crude manipulator in hedge fund trading and the benefactor of the institute named after him. He has an adopted daughter. We get a picture of the ins and outs of the institute and the manipulations involved in trying to produce a revealing study and report. Hilary befriends Bo (Karoline Xu), her assistant who, while nursing an unrequited crush on Hilary, works on developing their scientific behavioral study.
Hilary has taken to prayer, which Spike mocks, but she relies upon it for very personal reasons connected with her back story. At the age of 15 she had an illegitimate baby and gave her up for adoption. (You’ll see a plot development coming.) Hilary prays both for forgiveness and for her daughter to have a good and happy life wherever she is.
What’s ultimately impressive is that despite all the talk about trying to scientifically understand the brain, a key aspect of the play comes down to human emotions and trying to do the right thing. Stoppard’s vision in this respect is movingly expressed by Hilary and her approach to life.
Cast members in various roles include Eshan Bajpay, Robert Petkoff, Nina Grollman, Tara Summers and Katie Beth Hall. An ensemble acts as movers with the task of speedily shifting furniture about.
The scenic set-up by David Rockwell blends nicely into the swift pacing by director Jack O’Brian. The overall design is lean. But it is surprising how effectively a bed and a kitchen sink can work to set a scene, and there are special gambits that suggest places, such as the wonderful impression of Venice as background for a trip there for a conference. The overall effect is eye-catching simplicity, a perfect contrast to the provocative, complex thoughts and dialogue advanced by Stoppard. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 30, 2018.