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BWW Review: Tom Stoppard's THE HARD PROBLEM Debates The Existence of Selfless Acts

Yes, in the world of Tom Stoppard, post-coital pillow talk can be a debate about human consciousness and whether or not altruism truly exists. After all, nobody said anything about The Hard Problem was going to be easy.

BWW Review: Tom Stoppard's THE HARD PROBLEM Debates The Existence of Selfless Acts
Chris O'Shea and Adelaide Clemens
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)

No, the title does not refer to a certain website critic's attempt to review ARCADIA equipped with little more than an American public school education and a B.A. in theatre, but rather a biological conundrum introduced by philosopher David Chalmers questioning if all human behavior is caused by a Darwinian sense of survival and, if it is not, what is there in the human mind that creates a sense of morality that can sway people to do what is they believe is right without receiving any personal reward. (For the record, a character argues that personal reward includes the good feeling you get when you've done something right without receiving any personal reward.)

After director Jack O'Brien's semi-choreographed opening by an ensemble that seems ready to burst into song (bursting into set changes is the closest they come) we meet psychology student Hilary (cool, observant Adelaide Clemens) whose whip smart banter with her tutor Spike (properly annoyingly headstrong Chris O'Shea) seems to be prepping the audience for a cerebral romantic comedy. Their discussion of the existence of selflessness includes a comparison of Rose of Sharon from "The Grapes of Wrath" feeding a starving man with her breast milk with the motivation for well-feed vampire bats to regurgitate blood into the mouths of their less-nourished neighbors.

Another issue arises when Spike sees the devout Hilary kneeling in prayer at her bedside. What exactly she's praying for is something best explained by the playwright.

BWW Review: Tom Stoppard's THE HARD PROBLEM Debates The Existence of Selfless Acts
Karoline Xu and Adelaide Clemens
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Spike is helping Hilary prep for a job interview (A good deed that comes with the hope for a sexual reward?) with the Krohl Institute For Brain Science, a think tank run by hedge fund millionaire Jerry (Jon Tenney doing the self-absorbed capitalist routine) who wants his people to find more accurate ways to predict human investment behavior.

Five years later, Hilary and her assistant Bo (Karoline Xu) are working on an experiment, utilizing nearly 100 children to test the innate nature of compassion. One child is Jerry's daughter, Cathy (Katie Beth Hall) who just may provide the answer to Hilary's prayers.

Clocking in at 100 minutes, The Hard Problem may seem a bit overextended at times, but Stoppard's dialogue is sharp and challenging and O'Brien's staging has a crisp energy. And in this season of giving, the topic may especially inspire some interesting post-theatre chatter.

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From This Author Michael Dale

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