‘The Hard Problem’ runs at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center Theater through Jan. 6. 150 W. 65th St., lct.org.
Just a few months since a robust Broadway revival of one of his early plays (the difficult and dense comedy “Travesties”), English playwright Tom Stoppard has returned with “The Hard Problem,” his first new play in nearly a decade, which is being produced Off-Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater.
“The Hard Problem” (which premiered in London in 2015 and has since received several U.S. productions) does not shy away from addressing a wide range of scientific and philosophical issues, including neuroscience, evolutionary biology, altruism and mathematical probability.
In a movingly transparent and vulnerable performance, Adelaide Clemens stars as Hilary — a young, attractive and principled research scientist with less-than-stellar academic credentials, who unexpectedly lands a job at a prestigious brain science institute that is funded by a gruff, extremely wealthy hedge fund manager (Jon Tenney), bringing her into contact with a lot of very smart people with firm viewpoints.
The characters endlessly debate the well-known, seemingly unresolvable mystery of whether the conscious properties of the human mind (i.e. thinking and feeling) can be explained through physical brain activity alone. Stoppard also tries to draw a connection between this and the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.
Despite its cerebral and conceptual nature, the play remains firmly focused on Hilary and her personal and professional journey. Whereas “Travesties” proved to be hyperkinetic and bewildering, “The Hard Problem” is soft, simple and sensitive. For those who find Stoppard too bizarre at times, “The Hard Problem” achieves an ideal balance of intellect and heart (not unlike “Arcadia”).
Broadway heavyweight Jack O’Brien (whose prior credits include Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” and “The Invention of Love”) provides a well-balanced, handsome and engaging production, which runs approximately 100 minutes without an intermission. David Rockwell’s spare scenic design turns the circular Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater into a sort of medical theater and Bob James’ original music (pounded out sharply on piano) blends nicely with the text.