Main Street Theater’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem” is “good.” It made me happy to see such a well-done piece of art. Of course, there is no quantifiable way to tell how how much happiness I felt. It‘s just a feeling, a demonstration of my consciousness.
Therein lies the question of the eponymous “hard problem” — what is consciousness? What is the difference between “the brain” and “the mind”?
Stoppard’s most recent play, which premiered in 2015, opens with grad student Hilary (Jessie Hyder) arguing with her tutor, Spike (B. Connor Flynn), about the meaning of consciousness, morality and altruism. Spike believes our actions are motivated simply by a survival instinct — even dubs Raphael’s painting, “Madonna and Child” as “Woman Maximizing Gene Survival.” Hilary, on the other hand, believes we are motivated by the desire to be “good.”
By the following scene, the pair are post-coitus. When Spike catches Hilary on her knees in prayer, he is at first embarrassed to have disturbed her, then slightly incredulous that she would believe in God, and the pair kick off arguing again.
Hilary needs to believe that our actions are more than simply self-motivated. Her faith a God and her desire to be “good” stems from seeking forgiveness for giving up a daughter, the result of a teen pregnancy at 15, whom she named Catherine. Did she do the right thing? Is the girl happy? Is she taken care of? These questions haunt her.
Hilary takes a position at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, a prestigious research center funded by Jerry Krohl (Rhett Martinez), who made his fortune in hedge funds. She gets a job ahead of Amal (Jordan Tannous), whose speciality is mathematical probability. Amal is a mathematician, whereas Hilary raises the “hard problem,” which impresses her soon-to-be boss, Leo (Dwight Clark).
Five years later, we see Amal is also working for Jerry, building statistical models that predict the 2009 stock market crash. Hilary, meanwhile, with the help of her assistant mathematician Bo (Mai Le), is running a test on 95 children to test whether they feel empathy toward a woman they believe is being subjected to electric shocks. The test shows younger children have more empathy — or does it?
The ensemble is excellent, led by Hyder who embodies all the “goodness” Hilary strives for without at any time being cute. She is the core of the narrative and she was superb at every turn. Flynn’s Spike is the perfect foil for Hilary. In less sure hands, he could come across as simply arrogant, but Flynn gives us humanity as well. Tannous excels as the comic relief (although that is not to marginalize the importance of his character as counterpoint).
Martinez’s Jerry is a fascinating character and well played. In some ways, he comes across as a cartoon villain, fast talking, doing deals and barking at underlings on his phone in the middle of conversations, like a Film Noir newspaper editor. Yet we also see him with his adopted daughter, Cathy, where he is every bit the “good” caring, loving father.
Callina Anderson as Ursula, Bonnie Langthorn as Julia and Kallie Vinson as Cathy rounded out a strong cast.
Under the clean direction of Rebecca Greene Udden, a sure hand with Stoppard, the play zips along at a brisk two hours, including intermission. The production is in the round, which is always interesting, and the set is sparse but efficient.
“The Hard Problem” raises a lot of interesting ideas, and the dialogue, as one would expect from Stoppard, crackles, especially between Hilary and Spike.
What is “good”? What is the role of coincidence? Can everything really be explained through statistical models?
There’s a reason it’s a “hard problem.” For all the questions, audiences will leave no closer to an answer than when they arrived, but the play is “good” — and that’s quantifiably true — I think.
“The Hard Problem” has been extended through Oct. 13. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m., Oct. 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, and 3 p.m., Oct. 6 and 13.
Main Street Theater is located at 2450 Times Boulevard in Houston.
For tickets, visit mainstreettheater.com.