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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Hard Problem — Wilma Theater

hard problem -- interior 2It happened just now.

I was playing my twice-a-day online trivia game. I saw the multiple choice answers. I immediately knew which one was right. I saw my 90 percent correctness status being preserved. Then I did something stupid.

I thought.

Instead of going with my gut feeling, which was instantaneous and accurate, I allowed a second of doubt that led to a minute of logic during which I discounted what I knew by osmosis, or vague memory, and made the wrong choice.

Serves me right! And Shakespeare! There’s a man who knew his onions. Conscience does make cowards of us all.

At least conscientiousness does.

I was being too careful. I let nurture overcome nature in a way that was hardly disastrous, but which was disappointing, momentarily dispiriting even, because I let the folly of ignorance, or worse the folly of second thought, triumph over certain bliss.

On a much, much, much larger scale — much, much larger — Tom Stoppard’s characters in “The Hard Problem” think about, and talk about, such relationships as right and wrong, good and bad, instinctive or learned, simple or sophisticated, certain and uncertain, every day.

Most of the characters make their livings by studying, patterning, or flat out guessing the nature of human behavior.

With nurture as potent variable.

Hilary is a psychologist, a thoughtful, probing psychologist who works at a neuroscience think tank of sorts and is primarily interested in when, or at what age exactly, people stop being candid and reflexively honest and start to add other factors to their mental considerations, such as saying what will please someone instead of what they mean, or negotiating, or manipulating, or lying outright. When does another purpose, presumably a learned purpose, replace the impulse to tell the truth, or to be good or kind or nice? And where and how does one learn it?

You see, Stoppard is as probing as Hilary. Moreso, since he created Hilary and the other characters who present other points of view. Throughout his remarkable career, through play after play, Stoppard has examined corruption of the honest or the genuine. He has created entertaining stories and plots to illustrate the ideal and what goes wrong to pervert it. Or even mildly distort or taint it.

The title, “The Hard Problem,” refers to scientists having to include the existence of something they don’t know and can’t prove, specifically the hand of what we call God, in the mix of astronomical and human events. Even more daunting, the scientists in “The Hard Problem”  are often challenged to account for the presence, or influence, of a higher intelligence or ultimate power, in their research.

The play begins when Hilary, dash her 21st century (21st century B.C.?) soul, is caught praying by Spike, her boyfriend, also scientist, a neurobiologist, who is appalled by what he considers her archaic behavior.

Spike finds prayer, and particularly prayer to God, illogical in the name of several breakthroughs, most pointedly the Darwinian. He deems it incomprehensible that a woman of Hilary’s training and empirical knowledge would indulge in a practice such a praying, let alone do it ritually and with sincerity. His and Hilary’s discussion, well, argument, set up the basis for what Stoppard has to say, which goes deeper and spills into several directions most of which have to do with morality vs. practicality, factionally accepted wisdom over another faction’s equally cherished ideas, and the absolute, in terms of the provable, definable, quantifiable, vs. the random and coincidental. Altruism and coincidences also have their day under Stoppard’s microscope.

Stoppard’s combinations and permutations are moral and philosophical. He makes room for the outlier, the reality or data prediction that defies the logic of the neat and predictable, and shows how the anomaly often throws the absolutists, the people who live and die by their computer models, for a walloping loop while those who allow for the strange, or at least for radical variation, might be more flexible and adaptable. The most lively and content character in ‘The Hard Problem,” Amal, a scientist who thrives in hedge funding when he can’t get a job at a lab — the job Hilary is given — exemplifies the person who makes the tastiest lemonade from life’s jolts and jostles and has no regrets about doing what is smart and advantageous to him no matter the consequences to the general world, its economy, or its pretense to morality.

Amal might turn out to be the most honest person in “The Hard Problem,” because though he is expedient and feckless, he knows what he is doing, why he is doing it, and how he will evolve — Spike is a dedicated Darwinist. — when others cringe in worry and wonder.

With characters’ behavior, conscious or unconscious, depicting common obstacles to the absolutism that Stoppard explores — and his list is wide-ranging — we see acted out in life what characters express as theories, hypotheses, facts, and hunches in their various arguments and maunderings. Human frailty, by way of conscience and second thought, is shown to skew all the models artificial intelligence plot for us. One character errs unconscionably by wanting so badly to please another. The physical vs. the mental, the speedily predicted vs. the hastily decided, the visceral vs. the polite in the form of a pleasing right jab to one’s eye, are personified. Stoppard even grants himself the anti-21st century literary luxury of showing how coincidence does occur and is not necessarily pre-ordained but is, yes, an unlikely confluence of circumstance, a lucky accident.

As always with Stoppard, “The Hard Problem” swirls with ideas and concepts you want to hold and consider, even as if they pass by while the action of the play proceeds. You leave admiring the playwright’s mind and thanking him for all of the truly fascinating relationships he’s given you to ponder.

“The Hard Problem,” including its titular inclusion of a supreme deity as a key variable, leads you consider what it make take to be a moral, benevolent person in a world that requires defenses and outsmarting because it is not neat and is not populated by the good, the nice, or the kind, assuming we can define those terms or survive as a species if we behaved according to them. The hard problem, as usual in Stoppard, is how to be human while resisting corruption, while considering myriad points of view, and while being driven to accept conventions that might be, and probably are, more corrupting than true.

Oh happy playwright who can get people cogitating on such matters! Oh happy audience to have such considerations served on a theatrical plate to savor and consider! Oh confused humans to have to make a choice, assuming anyone is moved to the point of deciding anything, among all we know, all we think, all we surmise, and all, and here’s the point, we have thrown at us,

Psychology, biology, neurology, and following the best bet are all a part of “The Hard Problem.” Stoppard, drat his brilliant hide, turns your head into a cyclone that makes you deliberate and gives you opportunity for cranial housekeeping that at least helps you organize what you think about a given idea.

Notice I’ve talked much about Stoppard’s play and little, in fact not at all, about Blanka Zizka’s production of it at the Wilma Theater.

That’s because I wanted to accentuate the positive and talk about the things that excited me and made me thoughtful rather than being naughty and glib from the gate. (Alice Roosevelt Longworth is now chomping at the bit. The “not nice” is imminent.)

The first thought that came to my head when the lights came down on Matt Saunders’s bright white set, so bright and so white I had to shade my eyes at the top of some scenes that went from subdued to brashly stark lighting, was, “We need Bette Davis.”

We need performers who can physicalize and make plain even the subtle, if monumental, notions Stoppard is conveying. We need Stoppard’s intellect to come alive theatrically, so that the electricity of his questioning meandering, translate to the stage.

At first, I thought “The Hard Problem” might remain on too intellectual a plane, that it didn’t have dramatic scenes that depicted its verbal concepts on the scale of “Travesties,” “Arcadia,” “The Invention of Love,” or even an early piece I find so telling, perhaps because I’m a journalist, “Night and Day” (especially in the original production with Diana Rigg).

But no. From the start, in a reverse of expectation, the pinched Darwinist is attacking the more expansive thinker for doing something that is contemporarily unpopular among advanced philosophers, acknowledging and praying in good old-fashioned beside piety, to God. And not to be a lottery billionaire, but for the basis people and circumstances of her life.

How refreshing in its way! How courageous in 2016  to make a traditionally, but not a fanatically observant or moralistic, religious person a protagonist!

As “The Hard Problem” proceeds, we notice Stoppard has also introduced the coincidence that permeates his play, more and more obviously, and how deftly he will turn the concept of coincidence Hilary uses to challenge Spike and others, a concept brought out more clearly by another character, Jerry Krohl, from a polemic construction to an actual case.

This deftness exists throughout. “The Hard Problem” is a better play that it appears to be on the Wilma stage. Zizka and company have scratched the surface. They’ve unleashed the beast, but they haven’t found the depth, the wit, or even the Shavian dichotomies in the play to make it a great, rewarding, amusing dramatic tussle.

From an intellectual point of view, it’s obvious how I was affected by Stoppard’s latest. From a theatrical point of view, I was frequently bored. How, with my head taking up Stoppard’s swirl, and considering a barrage of notions, could I be anything but engaged?

There’s the separation Stoppard writes about. There’s the compartmentalization of what is literary and what is dramatic. I experienced the Wilma’s “The Hard Problem” as reader, not as a theatergoer. And I am not to blame for that.

Of course, Zizka’s production kept me watching. But I was more waiting to the next mental exercise Stoppard would propose. I kept looking for the connection between philosophy and playwriting.

It’s there. I found it, but it did not translate to stagecraft. No performance was bad, and I could distinguish the arguments, and the logic characters used to wage them, but I was never moved. I never cared for anyone or his or her fate. As much as Stoppard tried to make his characters human examples of the points he expressed, they remained ciphers, talking pawns that distinctly recited their views but with conviction, without risk, without desire to be right.

Bette Davis! Give me Bette Davis!!!

Or Geraldine Fitzgerald, or Barbara Stanwyck, or Deborah Kerr, someone who will back up her words and thoughts with fire. Even in an intellectual, scientific think tank. The great Kate worked in a research department in “The Desk Set.” It didn’t stop her from brimming with life. Teresa Wright played a legion of smart, good girls, but she always had a spark in her eye that was valiant and down-to-earth without falling into Hollywood traps of being haughty or self-conscious.

Sarah Gliko, as Hilary, wasn’t wrong or incompetent. I found her incomplete in the same way I found Geneviève Perrier in the Lantern’s “Photograph 51.” I liked Gliko’s decency and sincerity. I identified with Hilary and her abundance of good will in not discounting anything she could not prove, following her instincts and moral precepts more carefully than others who talk about such things more egotistically and boastfully, and her penchant for doing targeted research to ascertain what she might logically learn from an experiment.

Gliko kept me on Hilary’s side, but I never thought she captured the complete woman Hilary is.

And Gliko, like Perrier, is among the region’s best actresses. I’ve seen both women do wonders. So why does each stint with a role that is so expansive and so much in her individual wheelhouse?

Gliko’s Ophelia was a gem in Zizka’s “Hamlet” and even managed to put substance ahead of style in possibly the most satisfying sequence of Theodoros Terzopoulos’s “Antigone.” What stunted her talent and ability to emote while playing Hilary?

Gliko has fine moments. You want to back her up when she’s sparring with Ross Beschler’s Spike at the top of “The Hard Problem.” You admire Gliko, and not just Hilary, when she makes a brave moral choice and takes responsibility for an act in which Hilary was actually betrayed. In the long run, though, there’s no inner flame that drives Gliko’s Hilary, not even a visible yin-yang of doubt warring with confidence, human failings battling with rectitude.

Gliko, like most of Zizka’s cast, let words to all of the work. She managed to credibly lead the performance while staying basic, and she did establish an understanding of Hilary and what she stands for, but the portrayal lacked excitement, that one element that would rivet you to Hilary and endear her to you.

Life arrived on the Wilma stage most often when Shravan Amin appeared as Amal.

Amin gave his character a natural casualness. You could see his petulance and sense of unconquerable superiority and enjoy Amal even when he acts like the asshole Jerry wants to brand him with a sign around his neck or gleefully spouts how a 16 percent return from his hedge fund excuses much of what his speculation and risk-taking might mean to the general economy. Amin shows the joy Amal derives from being smart, even if he’s not always right and is about to be tested by an incongruity in his vaunted computer-plotted figures.

Steven Rishard, as Jerry, also conveyed dimension and registered boldly as the pragmatist among the characters, the owner of a company that wants to finance and foment good, beneficial science while making Amal’s 16 percent look like chicken feed, no matter what must be done, moral or not, to accomplish that. Rishard brought out Jerry’s common sense approach to life, including knowing when he’s the boss and can do as he pleases and when he might be ethically wrong but financially smart for ignoring such a detail.

I have to admit I think the current penchant to prosecute for even warranted assault made me really enjoy it when Krista Apple-Hodge’s Ursula, a Lesbian with an overconceived, overstated stereotypical lumbering walk and pathetic fashion sense to advertise it, hauls off and slugs Beschler’s Spike after he makes a particularly crude and smug sexist remark. (Everyone in the theater wanted to hit the boor, trust me.)

Bette Davis lived in that moment. And Stanwyck too!

Ross Beschler infuses Spike with character. He can also get into line-for-line’s sake style of delivery, but Beschler puts cocky élan in Spike’s gait and posture that add to the character’s story and let you know more about him. While Gliko’s Hilary makes the best points and lands the right challenges in the opening scene, Beschler’s faster, more defensive tone as Spike is what makes you attend to it. It is he that brings you into the play.

Lindsay Smiling plays the most underused character, Leo, and does it with a breezy nonchalance that is a good match to Amin’s easygoing self-assurance. Leo has standards. At least he knows what standards are. But he is just as happy about approaching matters in the most self-preserving corporate way and putting moral dilemmas on a back burner if they conflict with his personal comfort. Leo is the quintessential shrugger, and Smiling shows his congenial but self-absorbed character. Jeena Yi, Taysha Canales, and Gaby Bradbury complete the cast.

In addition to being bright, Matt Saunders’s set is clinically pristine in his ultra-whiteness and is desks, etc. placed just so. You get a sense of organization and off characters that prefer to clutter their minds with questions and good and evil rather than be surrounded by objects. Thom Weaver’s lighting blinds on occasion, which shows its range and effectiveness. Vasilija Zivanic’s costumes are perfect. So are the doleful, mood-creating, thought-provoking tones played by saxophonist Mike Pedicin, Jr., as the audience gathers and between scenes. Daniel Perelstein is the composer. He is also the sound designer and may want to go back and check for audibility. Some crucial dialogue in Gliko and Beschler’s opening exchange gets muddled, and requires extra concentration because Zizka has staged “The Hard Problem” with some of the audience on the stage. The actors tend to project laterally across the stage rather than speaking towards the house. This harms comprehension and should be addressed.

So much is discussed, and so much happens in the five years encompassed within “The Hard Problem’s” 100 or so minutes, the subjects Stoppard broaches become their own reward. The pity is the production isn’t as heady and as provocative as all Stoppard persuades you to contemplate.

Conscience is the variable artificial intelligence cannot account for. It is the element that keeps us human and makes humanity ultimately unchartable no matter how many studies, models, or calculations are done to predict the conventional and determine the likely. It has to be considered alongside studies of the brain that rely on biochemistry alone and don’t account for the randomness, and suddenness, of human behavior. In “The Hard Problem,” Stoppard lets us see how much conscience matters, how much someone doing something unanticipated for the right, most kind, or altruistic reason can skew all of the models technocrats, and even scientists, build so cravingly. Stoppard’s characters debate whether pure altruism even exists. God, or the reason there is a universe, a consciousness, neurobiology, and human behavior to study, has a place in the Stoppardian cosmology, which makes “The Hard Problem” all the more interesting.

“The Hard Problem” runs through Saturday, February 6, at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, Jan. 17 and 24, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday, Jan. 27. Tickets, thanks to a generous and forward-thinking grant by the Wyncote Foundation, are $25 with excellent discounts for senior and theater industry professionals. During the show’s extension period, Feb. 2 to 6, tickets are $45. They are be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or by visiting www.wilmatheater.org.

 

 

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