As anyone who has experienced the plays of Tom Stoppard will tell you, they very quickly ignite the synapses in your brain and force that mass of gray matter to operate in near manic overdrive. The work is challenging, but it also is great fun. And invariably you leave the theater asking countless questions while still trying to come to grips with the scores of ideas Stoppard has flung into the air with such virtuosic dexterity.
In the case of “The Hard Problem,” which debuted at London’s National Theatre in 2015 and is now receiving a knockout Chicago premiere at Court Theatre, it is the very nature of the brain itself that is at the core of the play. So yes, this is “a head trip” of a work from start to finish. And under the fleet, razor-sharp direction of Charles Newell — and featuring a luminous, near marathon performance by Chaon Cross that confirms her status as one of the brainiest, most beautiful, emotionally compelling and physically expressive actresses to be found anywhere (just watch as she dances with a blanket) — it makes every one of Stoppard’s notions snap, crackle and pop in ways alternately funny, sexy, poignant and playfully provocative.
‘THE HARD PROBLEM’
When: Through April 9
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Tickets: $48 – $68
Info: (773) 753-4472;
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission
It all begins with a candlelight prayer before shifting to what Stoppard wittily refers to as an act of “carnal embrace” in his earlier play, “Arcadia.”
Hilary (Cross) is a neuro-psychologist preparing for an interview at Britain’s Krohl Institute for Brain Science, a prestigious research center privately funded by an immensely wealthy hedge fund manager. She has just had sex with her unapologetically womanizing mentor, Spike (Jurgen Hooper in a winningly spiky turn), and in the edgy afterglow, they engage in a fierce debate about her notions regarding the human brain. Most notably, she is obsessed with the largely unpopular idea that the brain — or more broadly, consciousness — is not just a sort of highly evolved organic computer, but rather something grander, more mysterious and at times even more altruistic that, by its very nature, possesses a spiritual (some might say “religious”) component.
This, of course, is close to heresy (or just plain “gibberish”) among many in the scientific world, although as Albert Einstein famously wrote: “To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: This is religiousness. In this sense … I am a devoutly religious man.” And in a similar way, Hilary believes that human consciousness cannot simply be explained in “mechanical terms.”
As it turns out, she does gain admittance to Krohl, alongside the more traditional neuro-biologists and neuro-chemists like Amal (Owais Ahmed), who explains the workings of the brain in terms of Darwinian adaptation, hormonal action or more, much as financial maven Jerry Krohl (Nathan Hosner) explains the predictive behavior models that can determine his investment decisions.
At the same time, we learn that Hilary is driven by a deep sense of personal guilt, for as a teenager she became pregnant, gave her infant daughter up for adoption, and now worries about the girl’s fate. This element of the story, with its suggestion of the nature/nurture argument, also involves the notion of “coincidence” (a somewhat overly manipulated aspect of the plot). As Krohl explains it to his daughter, Cathy (Sophie Thatcher), a coincidence is two things that unexpectedly happen at the same time, although the “unexpected” quality is simply a result of not having had enough information.
This being Stoppard there is a great deal more, too, all jam-packed into 100 nonstop minutes. For example, two centuries after the demise of the brilliant (and “forgotten”) young female mathematician in “Arcadia,” he gives us 21st century women in the lab, now dealing with arrogant men, but also with each other amid the fiercely competitive, back-biting politics that can infect the scientific community as much as any other.
In addition, rather than making any heavy-handed, politically correct statement, Stoppard simply populates his cast with an accurate contemporary cross-section that includes a lesbian couple composed of a white scientist (Kate Fry) and a black Pilates instructor (Celeste M. Cooper), a Chinese post-doc (Emjoy Gavino), a scientist of Middle Eastern descent (Ahmed), and three white guys who are flawed yet not evil (Hooper, Hosner and Brian McCaskill).
John Culbert’s set (lit by Keith Parham), is an elegant, high-ceilinged light box of an empty space in which ideas and emotions easily intersect, suggesting that it is in the area between the known and the unknown that real intelligence exists.