Are we just a bunch of genes and neurons that direct our behavior? Where does consciousness come in? Those are among the questions asked in The Hard Problem, tackled by Quantum Theater in a dynamic multimedia production of Tom Stoppard’s most recent play.
The slippery title also refers to the nine-year gap between plays for Stoppard, arguably the greatest playwright in the English language today. And he’s always dealing with hard problems. The Pittsburgh premiere, directed by Rachel M. Stevens, adds an intermission to the 2015 original one-act, which helps the flow and pace of this complex piece.
With Problem, the always witty and erudite Stoppard probes human nature with a mix of sex, religion, Pilates, the economic meltdown of 2007-08, and multivariate statistical analysis. In his 1993 masterpiece Arcadia, Stoppard’s 19th-century heroine posits a mathematical formula “for all the future, and although nobody can be so clever to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.” Problem’s heroine challenges the materialistic approach, and tries to establish that “good” exists.
Set over a seven-year period, Problem takes Hilary (compassionately portrayed by Alex Spieth) from wide-eyed grad student to a brain-research lab, to a climax that questions her answers. Complicating her quest is the affable but dislikeable Spike (Andrew William Smith in suitably mean macho mode): tutor, lover, rival, asshole.
Randy Kovitz (also fight consultant) mixes alpha-male financier with philanthropy as Jerry, the rich dude behind the lab. Ken Bolden captures the body language of the serious scientist as Leo, Hilary’s boss and admirer. Vinny Anand provides stereotypical comic relief and a harsh view of reality as the smart but ruthless Amal. Stoppard usually provides meaty roles for women, but Claire Hsu, Daina Michelle Griffith and Fredi Bernstein as Hilary’s co-workers do well for what little their characters offer. Grace Vensel provides a charming spark as Cathy, Jerry’s good-hearted if precocious daughter.
Stevens’ remarkable design-tech team enriches the production with visual and sound effects from sonograms and brain scans to wispy rainfall and fireworks.
There’s a lot to take in with The Hard Problem, and as always with Stoppard, no easy solution.