Review: ‘The Hard Problem’ by Tom Stoppard at A.C.T. (***)



by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Like all the best of Tom Stoppard’s work, ‘The Hard Problem,” which is having its West Coast premiere at A.C.T. this month, is about very smart people struggling to make sense of very difficult ideas, and being very funny at the same time.

This relatively short play (less than two hours, presented without an intermission) has plenty of intellectual fireworks, entertaining situations, and it all goes down easy. It won’t shake you up, but it will take you on an intellectual roller coaster ride with plenty of good company and a lot of laughter.

The expert cast knows exactly how to handle Stoppard, as does director Carey Perloff. Perloff has worked closely with Stoppard many times over the years, and can be considered a specialist. And Stoppard himself was on hand for much of the rehearsal period. So it is no surprise to find that this show is a winner.

Hilary is a young psychology student of questionable credentials, competing for a place at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. She is not a likely candidate. The institute tends to favor the materialistic, stressing psychology as a function of natural selection, suspicious of philosophy, and unconcerned with moral dilemmas. Hilary’s deep, dark, secret is that she believes in God and actually — gasp! — prays. Her lover and tutor, the ethically slippery Spike, is a hard core evolutionary psychologist. Everything we do, think, and feel, he asserts, is simply matter of natural selection, whatever will help us pass our genes onto the next generation. Love, faith, decency, and ethics are so much extraneous baggage as regards the straightforward demands of survival. Stoppard finds a great deal of humor in this unlikely match, and, in the opening scene, Dan Clegg as the more rational Spike and Brenda Meaney as the faithful Hilary are both whip smart and button cute as they play out their romantic comedy. Sort of a “Desk Set” for the internet age, but a whole lot sexier than Hepburn and Tracy.

It is no spoiler to let on that Hilary makes the grade, and goes to work in a lab at the Institute where her boss, Leo, wants to work on “the Hard problem” — what is consciousness? — and is willing to consider a vision of life that is not wholly materialistic. He also is in love with Hilary.

The “hard problem” boils down to whether people have souls, and whether ethical considerations have any meaning. It is explored in intellectual discussions among the characters, and through various inter-relationships among the scientists, business tycoons, and academics who people this rarefied world of high-stakes research.

“The Hard Problem” doesn’t really attack the problem very deeply, but it gives us a hell of a good time putting it on display, and the performances are delightful.

Dan Clegg, who appeared earlier this season at The Strand Theatre  playing the titular character in “Chester Bailey,” continues to demonstrate an impressive charisma and versatility as the highly unethical but very attractive Spike. Brenda Meaney as Hilary has no problem convincing us that several characters could fall head-over-heels in love with the girl. As Jerry Kohl, the money behind the Institute, Mike Ryan is outstanding. In a truly virtuoso scene he conducts multiple conversations, some in person and some on his cell phone, differentiating each encounter depending upon to whom he is speaking. He seems to display multiple personalities, but it all holds together, making him an exceptionally convincing wielder of power. He’s chilling.

“The Hard Problem” may leave you no surer of a solution than when you started, but you’ll have a good time thinking about it and going along for the ride.

‘The Hard Problem’ plays at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre through November 13, 2016. For further information, click here


Rating: ***
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here)


The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard, produced by A.C.T. Director: Carey Perloff. Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce. Costume Design: Alex Jaeger. Lighting Design: Russel H. Champa. Sound Design: Brendan Aanes. Original Music: Nick Perloff-Giles and Brendan Aanes.


Spike: Dan Clegg. Hilary: Brenda Meaney. Amal: Vandit Bhatt. Leo: Anthony Fusco. Julia: Safiya Fredericks. Ursula: Stacy Ross. Jerry: Mike Ryan. Cathy: Carmen Steele. Elaine: Julie Adamo. Bo: Narea Kang. 


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