Dan Clegg and Brenda Meaney appear in American Conservatory Theater’s West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem.” (Courtesy Kevin Bern)

Dan Clegg and Brenda Meaney appear in American Conservatory Theater’s West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem.” (Courtesy Kevin Bern)

Plentiful ideas, little heat in ACT’s ‘Hard Problem’

How engaging you find Tom Stoppard’s latest play, “The Hard Problem,” now in a West Coast premiere at American Conservatory Theater, might depend upon just how interested you are in a series of basic existential questions: Does God exist? Do computers think? Is altruism in fact motivated by self-interest? Is that self-interest learned through evolutionary adaptation? Is coincidence really a thing? And what exactly is a hedge fund anyway?

The “hard problem” of the title alludes to a scientific, or perhaps philosophical conundrum: What is the nature of consciousness itself, and how does it emerge from the brain?

The play begins in media res, with psychology student Hilary (Brenda Meaney) and her math tutor and occasional lover, Spike (Dan Clegg), in her bedroom, arguing about God. Hilary’s given to praying — and to crying about a secret from her past.

Spike is preparing her for an important job interview in a brain research institute that’s looking into the very questions that interest her.

Hilary’s ensuing years at the institute provide opportunity for lots more intellectual and theoretical debates with various other characters in the 10-character drama.

Among them are the lesbian Pilates teacher Julia (Safiya Fredericks) who’s Hilary’s old schoolmate and Julia’s researcher girlfriend (Stacy Ross); a hard-science coworker (Vandit Bhatt); Hilary’s supervisor (Anthony Fusco); a young female coworker, Bo (Narea Kang); the verbally abusive institute head, Jerry (Mike Ryan), who also happens to run a hedge fund; and others.

In some of his past plays (his canon includes “Arcadia,” “Indian Ink” and other illustrious works, many of them produced over the years by ACT and many directed, as is this, by artistic director Carey Perloff) the British playwright struck a wondrous balance among brainy dialogue, challenging concepts and intriguing characters involved in complex relationships.

Not so here. The plot-related emotional connections (including Hilary and Spike; Bo to Hilary; Hilary to Jerry’s daughter) feel added on by the playwright to humanize an exploration of ideas; as such, they lack authenticity.

And even the ideas under examination, whether they derive from theories of psychology, ethics, evolution, philosophy or spirituality, never catch fire. They simply don’t progress in any theatrically satisfying way.

Despite an able cast and Perloff’s vigorous attempt to breathe life into the proceedings, the sound design during set changes (Nick Perloff-Giles and Brendan Aanes, composers) is more exciting than the script.

REVIEW
The Hard Problem
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. most Sundays; closes Nov. 13
Tickets: $20 to $105
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org
ACTAmerican Conservatory TheaterBrenda MeaneyCarey PerloffDan CleggHard ProblemTheaterTom Stoppard

Just Posted

A man walks past the main entrance to the Hotel Whitcomb at Eighth and Market streets on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Closing hotels could disconnect hundreds from critical health care services

‘That baseline of humanity and dignity goes a long way’

Dreamforce returned to San Francisco in person this week – but with a tiny sliver of past attendance. (Courtesy Salesforce)
Dreamforce returns with hundreds on hand, down from 170,000 in the past

High hopes for a larger Salesforce conference shriveled during the summer

The remnants of trees burned by the Dixie Fire near Antelope Lake, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa/The New York Times)
California’s wildfires invisible effect: high carbon dioxide emissions

This summer California fires emitted twice as much CO2 as last year

Latinos are dying at a lower rate than white and Black people in California. However, Latinos have had the sharpest increase in the death rate in the last month, rising from 2.4 deaths per 100,000 people in August to 4 per 100,000 in September. (iStock)
Who’s dying in California from COVID-19?

In recent months, those who are dying are younger

The numbers show nearly 14 percent of San Francisco voters who participated in the Sept. 14 recall election wanted to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom from elected office. (Shutterstock photo)
(Shutterstock photo)
How San Francisco neighborhoods voted in the Newsom recall

Sunset tops the list as the area with the most ‘yes’ votes

Most Read