If the first scene of a play has a couple in bed, undressed or sitting close enough to each other to pique your interest, you might be anywhere in contemporary theater. If the first scene of the play has a couple in bed and they're talking statistics, cost benefit analysis, or the game theory of the Prisoner's Dilemma, you're definitely in a Tom Stoppard play.
So begins Stoppard's most recent piece, The Hard Problem (2015), a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining conundrum now playing courtesy of Main Street Theater. If not as glittering as his best (which would include The Coast of Utopia, The Invention of Love, Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), this is still classic Stoppard territory, and that's just about as good as it gets in the world of theater.
He's been called the world's greatest living playwright by many theater illuminati, and I can't argue with that.
Stoppard writes plays for adults. He never panders, nor shortcuts, nor talks down to his audience. If anything, he loves to talk up. His plays are wonderful puzzles, constructed like the best of London Times' rebus teasers, a full-out intellectual assault. Warning: Do not doze off during a Stoppard play, or you'll miss a time bend, a shift in perspective, a major plot point that comes in a singular line of dialogue. “On the edge of your seat” takes on a entirely different meaning when viewing one of his works. He keeps you engaged at all times. And what delicious engagement.
Stoppard knows exactly how to put a thorny ethical dilemma into action, how to turn it into drama. In Problem his characters debate, argue, get drunk while debating and arguing, about consciousness and goodness, coincidence and miracle, the morality in the belief in God, hedge funds, altruism, evolutionary biology, panpsychism (!), and the superiority of the computer versus the human mind. There is a lot going on. But underneath the deep-dish polemics is the basic human urge to love and be loved. “I want to be good,” says Hilary (Jessie Hyder, vulnerable, not-quite-so-innocent, and immensely empathetic). She is Stoppard's Joan of Arc, righteous yet doubting, smart yet funny, innocent yet knowing.
Before going to bed with ultra-pragmatic, materialistic Spike (a vigorous B. Connor Flynn), she prays. Spike mocks her simplicity. Everything is self-interest to him, that's his belief system. Choices have been made eons ago, it's in our genes, driving evolution. Hilary believes there is more to being human than preprogrammed DNA. They go to bed anyway. There are choices we make that a computer can't fathom, nor compute. There can be miracles.
Stoppard caps this weighty disquisition by having Spike come out of the bathroom in Hilary's negligee. It couldn't be a more perfect visual put-down. Hilary is Stoppard's heroine, and he will brook no impertinence. She is on the side of the angels. Trials are yet to come for our Hilary, but goodness has its own reward. (I wouldn't put it past Stoppard to be slightly mocking those late 17th -century dramas of virtuous damsels and the perils they endured. He nimbly places this in a 21st-century context. Nothing much has changed in human nature, he implies with wizard's wink.)
One of Stoppard's alluring traits is his never-ending facility in spewing knotty arguments into intriguing dialogue. There's no way any of us could catch all his references or allusions on first hearing, but that's his ace. He tumbles out words, more words, ideas, concepts we might have overheard from a PBS show on Stephen Hawking or, less likely, cognitive scientist David Chalmers, and let's them rip. Just go with it, and that's the right way to appreciate Stoppard. It's all there, buried a bit under erudition and jazzy wordplay, but you'll get the drift. The wash is effervescent.
Director Rebecca Greene Udden keeps Stoppard's complexities crystal clear and spinning with ease, much as she did with Stoppard's glorious triptych Coast of Utopia, one of Main Street Theater's touchstone productions. The cast is ultra-fine, with faces new to me – above-mentioned Hyder and Flynn and Jordan Tannous, all of whom I want to see more of. Mai Le, Callina Anderson, Bonnie Langthorn, Dwight Clark, Rhett Martinez, and young Kallie Vinson (spelled by Anfisa Maredia in alternate performances) round out a definitive cast.
The production, like most of Main Street's work, is minimal yet telling. A bed may be just a bed, but in set designer Liz Freeze's capable hands, drape it in purple patterned sheets alongside a sleek contemporary nightstand outfitted with candles, and voila, a college psychologist's room primed for sex. The Krohl Institute for Brain Science, a think tank funded by a master-of-the-universe type, where most of the action is set, is made from a desk and two low seating cabinets. You don't need much, not when Stoppard's in the room. The best is overhead, maybe even unseen, but it's a marvelous invention – a chandelier of intertwining fiber optic cables that mimics...what...the firing neurons in a brain, perhaps? I'd like to think so.
The Hard Problem may not be Stoppard's masterpiece, but, boy, it's mighty good. Hilary may pray to be on the side of the angles, but Stoppard's beat her to it.
A note: Main Street has added three post-show discussion seminars in conjunction with the play's theme. All are free and open to the public whether or not you're attending the play. Following the Sunday, September 22 matinee, Dr. Mark Ryan from the Institute of Noetic Sciences will speak on the study of consciousness. Following the Sunday, September 29 matinee, Professor Emeritus of Engineering at the University of Houston, as well as the originator of PBS' The Engines of Our Ingenuity, John Lienhard will hold a panel discussion. On Friday, October 4, Jeffrey J. Kripal, associate Dean of Humanities at Rice University, will talk on the future of knowledge.
The Hard Problem continues through October