Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – In the Pittsburgh premiere of Tom Stoppard’s latest play, Quantum Theatre employs every tool in its creative arsenal as it paves the way to ponder “The Hard Problem.”
Is the human brain an all-powerful mechanism and are its inner workings knowable? And on the flip side, how do you account for consciousness?
That’s the great debate at the heart of the drama that maneuvers a twisty path from pillow talk to neuroscience to the stock market, and keeps on going.
The production illuminates the roiling clinical-emotional cauldron with visuals to tweak our brainwaves. You enter through a maze of artifacts seemingly plucked from memory — toys, appliances, furniture — cradled atop drop cloths. From this sepia-lit scene, you emerge at the staging area, a gray-white space that will pass for bedrooms, offices and laboratories within a building of laboratories, the Energy Innovation Center in the Lower Hill District.
Your powers of observation continue to be rewarded as the lights dim and a woman emerges from the maze with her hand over her heart. She is suddenly illuminated by a projection, with colors defining her, what? Brain activity? Emotional core?
The woman, Hilary (Alex Spieth), is central to Mr. Stoppard’s dilemma. She is both brainy and spiritual, and reconciling the two has him — er, her — in a pickle.
Ms. Spieth is an able and amiable guide through the playwright’s “Hard Problem,” relinquishing herself to Mr. Stoppard’s whiplash between hard science, wisdom gleaned from data and the unfathomable mysteries of coincidence, faith and love.
Mr. Stoppard has traveled a similar path with the time-twisty “Arcadia,” his 1993 play in which science, philosophy and sexual intrigue combine for one of theater’s most acclaimed contemporary dramas. Directed for Quantum by Rachel M. Stevens, “The Hard Problem” illuminates what sparks of connectivity are there to be mined, but the play rarely breaks through to the emotional pulse that permeates “Arcadia.”
Mental gymnastics mostly carry the day here, particularly when Hilary and Spike go at it.
He’s an avowed atheist who believes we are hardwired by our brain function, and Mr. Smith imbues him with a pretentiousness meant to keep lesser minds at arm’s length.
Hilary has faith in brain power, too — and in prayer, in God and, heaven help her, in our capacity for altruism and goodness.
“What is to be done with the sublime if you’re proud to be a materialist?” she asks Spike. “The life of the mind as the software of a biological computer? These are desperate measures.”
When she asks Spike to pray for the daughter she gave up for adoption as a teen, Mr. Smith’s Spike reacts as though he has been slapped, so upset is he by the idea of going against his own beliefs.
He warns her to keep that kind of talk to herself. It won’t put her in good standing for a coveted job at Krohl, named for the hedge-fund billionaire who has created an incubator for behavioral studies.
In short order, Hilary becomes central to an office dance of ladder-climbing and relationship entanglements at Krohl. Everyone has someone or desires someone in Hilary’s immediate circle.
Former classmate and confidante Julia (Fredi Bernstein) shows up as an on-site Pilates instructor whose partner Ursula (Daina Michelle Griffith) is a Krohl scientist. Hilary’s high-strung intern, Bo (Claire Hsu), dates higher-strung, data-driven Amal (Vinny Anand), a disgraced Krohl employee who predicted the stock market crash, but too soon, and has been demoted in a scathing put-down by the big boss. Hilary’s understanding supervisor, Leo, who has unrequited feelings for her, is played with wistful finesse by Ken Bolden.
There’s little finesse in Krohl himself, played with bravado by Randy Kovitz as a man who rewards results and crushes failures. He saves his soft side for his adopted daughter, Cathy (Grace Vensel), a girl whose connection to Hilary is obvious from the get-go.
Another mystery cleared up in a sentence is the most cogent description of a hedge fund I have ever heard. Mr. Stoppard can do that, whether the description is beside the point or the point entirely.
Mr. Stoppard’s brain is at hard labor here, using his considerable intellect and wit to grapple with one of life’s biggest mysteries. His characters may be lacking in emotional gusto, but Quantum isn’t. The company’s creative passions are on full display, doing justice to his quest…