The Hard Problem

At the Court Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago “The Hard Problem” is Tom Stoppard’s first play in 9 years, after opening in London in 2015. The Court Theatre, with a long and honorable special record of staging Stoppard’s works, is presenting the show in its Chicago premiere. Like earlier Stoppard plays, “The Hard Problem” glories in dense but eloquent wordplay in the service of challenging subject matter. Unfortunately, the play is more tract than viable drama. The intellectually stimulating material is there but not the ingenious plotting and vivid characterization that have made Stoppard the brand name for serious English-language drama since the mid 20th century.

          “The Hard Problem” takes place in the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, somewhere in England. The time is the present, covering a bit more than a year during its 1 hour and 45 minutes of uninterrupted performing time. The play’s characters talk passionately about brain chemistry, altruism, egoism, empathy, whether there are such things as coincidences, and most of all, the nature of consciousness/thinking.

          This is pretty abstruse stuff that the characters in the play debate passionately and relentlessly. In fact that is all they talk about. There are no breaks to discuss the weather or the political situation or any commonplace matters outside the hothouse cerebral climate of the Institute. The characters, for all their intense feelings, are abstractions created by Stoppard in the service of academically exploring psychological-/philosophical/religious conflicts, side-

tracked by occasional excursions into hedge funds and related high finance.

                                         Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

     The play is heavy going for anyone seeing it for the first time. Reading the script ahead of seeing “The Hard Problem” would be beneficial. But most attendees will be seeing the show cold and they will just have to do the best they can in following the narrative’s convoluted paths and extracting what they can of the playwright’s intensions.

          The chief glory of the Court staging is Chaon Cross’s stunning lead performance as Hilary, a young psychologist working at the Institute. Cross has done distinguished work at the Court as well as other major theaters in Chicagoland, but her ability to conquer the exceptional demands presented by the role of Hilary advances the actress to the head of the class in her age group locally, and if talent scouts know their business, nationally.

          As Hilary, Cross is on stage virtually the entire show and is responsible for more than half of Stoppard’s chewy dialogue. She runs the changes on a rainbow of emotions, from grief and guilt to romance and the intricacies of her chosen life as a psychologist, which means facing a minefield of career-endangering hazards. On top of that, we learn that at the age of 15 Hilary had a baby girl out of wedlock, for which she carries a heavy emotional burden (the whole subplot of her adopted daughter just muddies the already tangled main story).

          Cross navigates the tangled thicket of Hilary’s personal and professional life with an intelligence and command that are beyond impressive. The audience may be struggling to follow Hilary’s behavior, but Cross seems to grasp every emotion in the woman’s personality. Whether the character is kneeling in prayer, ruining coffee and pizza she makes for her colleagues, or interacting with the importunities of all the supporting characters, each of whom seem to be in love with her, Cross never loses her moorings.

                                                            Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

          Cross gets help from the large supporting cast, notably Jurgen Hooper as Spike, Hilary’s lover and mentor at Krohl; Brian McCaskill as the imperious leader of her department at the Institute; and Owais Ahmed as a heavy hitter in the financial world. Regrettably, the estimable Kate Fry is largely wasted in the minor role of a lesbian Institute staff member The remainder of the ensemble consists of Celeste Cooper, Nathan Hosner, Sophie Thatcher, and Emjoy Gavino, all of whom do what they can to bring alive a collection of high strung but two-dimensional figures.

          John Culbert has designed a single geometrical minimal set that underscores the distance between the characters on stage and the audience. The set’s sterility is enhanced by Keith Parham’s often dazzling white lighting. The visual production isolates the characters in a hermetically sealed world that mirrors the abstractions of the dialogue. Andre Pluess is the sound designer and Nan Cibula-Jenkins designed the costumes, including a frilly black woman’s nightgown inexplicably worn by Hilary’s mentor-lover in an early scene.

Eva Breneman is credited with “dialect design.” All the actors speak in thick English accents, not always clearly understandable. Even if the setting in England, the use of accents doesn’t seem mandatory and having the performers speak in their native American style would have eased the listening strain on already struggling viewers.

Director Charles Newell keeps the physical action moving smartly with characters arriving and departed the stage smartly. A few bits of modern dance jar the otherwise realistic surface of the action but they do inject some visual variety into a play that is basically a talkathon. Newell deserves a major shout out for his collaboration with Cross to shape her marvelous performance. The play doubtless can be presented in a variety of ways, especially scenically. But Newell’s vision of the script seems valid and Cross’s approach definitive.

Some viewers may revel in the uniquely Stoppard-ish complexities of “The Hard Problem.” My problems were two fold. First, the characters have little flesh and blood appeal, serving as sounding boards for various approaches to difficult topics not easily explained to a lay audience. Second, Hilary notwithstanding. the subject matter didn’t particularly interest me. Doubtless there will be many viewers who will be absorbed by the play’s probing into the intricacies of human consciousness and the workings of the mind and brain and collateral issues. I am not one of them. The playwright took on these demanding topics in “Arcadia” and the result was one of the classic theatrical and dramatic experiences of the modern theater. “The Hard Problem” alas does not approach that indelible work.

          The play gets a rating of 2½  stars.

          “The Hard Problem” runs through April 9 at the Court Theatre. 5535 South Ellis Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:3p.m. Tickets are $48 to $68. Call 773 753 4472 or visit

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