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.
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