Irene Hsiao

The Hard Problem at Court Theatre, 9 March-9 April 2017


Chaon Cross as Hilary, photo by Michael Brosilaw

Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem has closed at Court Theatre after a run that was evidently greeted with more enthusiasm than its London premiere, during which, director Charles Newell baldly admitted in a post-performance talkback on April 8, neither audiences nor critics showed sufficient admiration for a play Stoppard then believed required more intellect to appreciate. Where better to stage it than at the University of Chicago, where the brainy, nerdy, geeky, and trekkie duke it out on the regular in spontaneous and scheduled debates—moreover, where more Stoppard plays have been staged than anywhere else in Chicago?[1] A new Stoppard play, his first in a decade, an audience accustomed to byzantine discourse on esoteric material—who cares if the Hard Problem is offensive to women, minorities, scientists, and theatergoers—what’s the problem as long as the seats are full, and not with Goldstar grubbers, either![2]

I don’t quite know where to begin, except with my impression that either Stoppard has slipped into dotage, and no one has had the balls to take his car keys away, or that he meant the play as a scathing critique of contemporary society, and contemporary society is so narcissistic it can’t tell. How else can we excuse the fact that the play opens with something so insipid as (a Washington Post review describes of a different production) “sexy young intellectuals bantering half-nude in bed”?[3]

Arcadia, my favorite Stoppard play—indeed, one of my favorite plays—also opens with sexy bantering by young intellectuals[4]—the precocious Thomasina Coverly asking her tutor, Septimus Hodge, about the nature of carnal embrace. In the nineteenth century. Fully clothed. That’s innuendo. However, in the Hard Problem, Stoppard seems determined to bang it into us that logic problems themselves are sexy (basic game theory—what tantalizing mystery). And love, that pesky variable that interferes with Thomasina’s thermodynamics calculations is nowhere to be found in the verbal acrobatics between Hilary (Chaon Cross), the budding scientist who argues for both altruism and God and says her prayers, kneeling by a candle, each night before bed, and Spike (Jürgen Hooper), the self-interested mansplainer about one rung higher up on the ladder whom she has inexplicably invited into her home to test her theories.[5]

“You’re looking at two years. The jewelry was under the floorboards. The police have nothing to connect you to the scene of the robbery,” says Spike, in a manner of foreplay.

“I’m going to vomit,” says Hilary, fresh from a series of precoital Pilates exercises.

The dialogue doesn’t get better, and neither does the action.

Perhaps it is the unfortunate case of our current political situation and the sudden visibility of the hypocrisy of a certain sector of white feminism that makes Hilary so repellent a heroine and Spike and the other white male characters, Leo (Brian McCaskill) and Jerry (Nathan Hosner), nothing more than henchmen of the patriarchy, because otherwise, who wouldn’t love the story of a plucky, young, God-fearing girl making her way in the old boys club of science against the odds, which include having to give up the daughter she accidentally spawned at the age of fifteen for adoption?[6]

One more odd is Amal (Owais Ahmed), the South Asian, Cambridge-educated mathematician who has already published a first-author paper in neurobiology competing against Hilary for a job at the prestigious (we are repeatedly assured) Krohl Institute, where, despite an incomplete undergraduate thesis in psychology at Loughborough,[7] she is the “better fit” because she happens to be able to regurgitate verbatim a tip handed to her by the bitchy lesbian scientist Ursula (Kate Fry) (I’d like to see a play about her).[8] Amal is given the honor of an interview in the toilets of the Institute.[9] Hilary bats her eyes and coos, “the hard problem” in the lobby and wins a position as a principal investigator.[10] Her private agony over her abandoned daughter, her mania for fornicating with jargon-spewing academic bros, and her ability to dress and undress on cue with the cool precision of a stripper seems meant to inspire sympathy, but I cannot think from whom.

No one knows the “hard problem” is. Hilary assumes, of course, it’s about her—the snowflake altruist in a sea of vicious people—later it’s revealed to be interpreted by others as the problem of “consciousness: how?” or “body=mind?” But the point is, the problem is hard—so hard, it can only be solved by white people, preferably men. White women might be able to handle it if they have the help of clever sidekicks.[11] Ursula has Julia (Celeste M. Cooper), a black Pilates instructor/lover (as a lesbian, she’s practically a man in this man’s man’s man’s world, so she doesn’t need a brain). And Hilary soon gets Bo (Emjoy Gavino), a “young Chinese-American woman” deemed “unqualified in psychology and overqualified in maths” by Leo, later revealed to have studied at Shanghai, Caltech, and Cambridge, so, you know, really unqualified.[12] Bo switched from finance to the Krohl Institute because she wants, as Hilary does, to be “good.” Hilary needs Bo, because Bo can build mathematical models—and design a better experiment measuring the altruism Hilary is so obsessed with. Hilary is so happy with the work Bo has done for her that she gives Bo a present, a necklace of beads.[13]

Lest we become righteously irate that the real scientist is merely a secondary character in his play, Stoppard bequeaths Bo a flaw: despite her education, her intelligence, her youth, her exotic beauty, she is no more than a savage when it comes to white man’s science, because she doesn’t understand that science is meant to convey the truth and only the truth, so she tosses out data that don’t give perfect results in her formula. Like any savage, she thus requires Hilary’s help (her altruism!)—the poor creature would otherwise be milking buffalo in China (Hilary says).

“Are you in love with her?” Leo asks, exasperated that he can’t fire Bo without hurting Hilary’s feelings. “She’s in love with me,” replies Hilary. “Finally something I understand!” says Leo. Because the one thing the man can understand is being in love with a woman as infuriatingly aligned with his beliefs about femininity—its weakness for babies, animals, and gods—as Hilary is.

I don’t have anything more to say than, DO BETTER, intellectuals! And try to do better, if you can, Court Theatre!

[1] I did not verify this assertion, made by Newell in the post-performance talk.

[2] As a matter of fact, I don’t know where everyone else got their tickets—it’s possible Goldstar had something to do with it. But the theater was certainly full, and a line of audience members waiting for standby seats was snaking out the door of the house before curtain.

[3] I am breaking two of my personal rules here—reading another review of the work before completing the writing of my own and reviewing a work I did not see on a press ticket, though I was comped in. This piece of writing thus occurs in and as a gray area, a response but not a formal review—and as for the other review, I stopped reading it immediately upon securing the quotation I desired.

[4] Note how helpful a few changes to the placement of these modifiers can be!

[5] One difference in Court Theatre’s production is that Hilary and Spike go to bed after rather than before their debate; was this the kind of subtle modification Newell urged audience members to notice while reading the play? And what director exhorts an audience to read a play after seeing his production? Is that not like a conductor requesting that an audience study a musical score after hearing a symphony performed? If you’ve done your job well, I shouldn’t have to.

[6] Not that it matters, but the word “abortion” does not appear in this play.

[7] Amal hasn’t heard of it, either.

[8] This seems deserving of more than a footnote, but why is studying for a test or a job portrayed by Stoppard or anyone else as gross trickery by an evil, undeserving scoundrel, rather than what it actually takes to do the work? Of course, as someone who has always studied and rarely “fit,” I may be taking this harder than I should.

[9] I wish I were kidding about this. I also wish the part where Leo at first overlooks Hilary for THE PERSON MORE QUALIFIED FOR THE JOB weren’t seen as humorous by the audience in attendance on April 8.

[10] Did I mention she hasn’t actually finished her degree?

[11] Where have we seen that before * cough * Disney * cough * princesseszzzzzzzzhhhhht

[12] One of these things is not like the other. That’s right, it’s Shanghai—the only place that is also a verb meaning, “to enroll or obtain (a sailor) for the crew of a ship by unscrupulous means, as by force or the use of liquor or drugs.”

[13] Surely the last time beads were so hot on the market was when Manhattan was purchased by the Dutch with a handful of glass ones.


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