Review: THE HARD PROBLEM at Studio Theatre

By: Jan. 18, 2017
The Hard Problem is the brainchild of Czechoslovakian-born British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fame. In the course of "reading for pleasure" Stoppard stumbled upon "the hard problem." A shadowy term for those cognitive scientists and laymen "in the know," the hard problem is the problem of explaining consciousness.. Needless to say, initially at least, I was not in the know.

The Hard Problem debuted at The National Theatre, London, in 2015. The central figure, a British undergraduate from a lesser-known technical university, Hilary (Tessa Klein), is worrying about her future (sounds familiar). In her bedroom, she debates an example of game theory known as the Prisoner's Dilemma with her tutor, Spike (Kyle Cameron). The debate, fueled by a healthy dose of romantic chemistry, really kicks off when Spike walks in on Hilary praying. Spike is miffed; Hilary is a scientist, a psychologist! There is no more mystery in the universe, he declares, except maybe black matter, "and they're working on that!" Contrary to all scientific intelligence, Hilary clings to the mysterious. In the spirit of the scientific method, the audience must as: but why?

As Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen notes so concisely, "the tension between knowledge and mystery pervades the play."

The Hard Problem is set between 2001-2007. In that time, Hilary goes from undergraduate to PhD at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, owned by the ubiquitous Jerry Krohl (the formidable David Andrew MacDonald). At the Institute she finds a kindred spirit in her department head Leo (Martin Giles) and a new-old friend in Pilates instructor Julia (Emily Kester) and her girlfriend Ursula (Joy Jones). Her research mentee Bo (Nancy Sun in all her awkward glory), a young mathematician, falls in love with Hilary, despite her relationship with the self-important hedge-fund manager, Amal (Shravan Amin). Spike continues to pop up every now and then to rattle Hilary and provide comic relief.

Director (also Associate Artistic Director at Studio) Matt Torney keeps it simple and the human interactions are realistic. Set Designer Debra Booth's set is for lack of a better description, techy-corporate-chic. The highlight of the set is a stone wall emblazoned with the Krohl Institute's logo framed by sliding glass doors.

Lighting Designer Michael Gionnitti, Costume Designer Sarah Cubbage, Sound Designer James Bigbee Garver and Voice, Text and Dialect Coach Elizabeth Forte Alman round out the production team.

As an ensemble, the cast of The Hard Problem experiences its awkward moments. Klein is the universal exception; everyone she touches comes alive.

Klein deftly handles Hilary's transition from slouchy undergraduate to poised PhD. Klein and Cameron are possessed of a rather stellar chemistry. Their spats, so spirited and in a way so utterly familiar to many of us in the audience, manage to ground a rather cerebral production (despite all the big words).

Sorry to say, I found the The Hard Problem to be rather predictable. Pre-occupied by the science of the so-called hard problem, Stoppard relies on a well-known plot and plot devices to explore the hard problem, a decision which I found rather disappointing.

Stoppard's characters talk fast and think faster in a play jam-packed with science-y references which may prove to be somewhat inaccessible to theatergoers. That being said, The Hard Problem is dry and witty, even relatable in its own way. Most importantly, it is well paced and never boring; a blessing for a play with no intermission.

Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission

Advisory: Adult themes, language, and nudity

THE HARD PROBLEMS runs until February 19th at Studio Theatre located at 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC, 20005. For tickets call (202) 332-3300 or click here.

Photo credit: Tessa Klein and Martin Giles in The Hard Problem. Photo by Teresa Wood.


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Jennifer Minich is a DC native and a trained classical vocalist who has performed and worked throughout the DC Metro area. She has an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in V... (read more about this author)


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