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'The Hard Problem' review: Tom Stoppard's mind play isn't easy

Adelaide Clemens has to wrap her head around

Adelaide Clemens has to wrap her head around numerous scientific concepts in Tom Stoppard's "The Hard Problem," which also features Eshan Bajpay, left, and Robert Petkoff. Credit: Paul Kolnik

WHAT "The Hard Problem"

WHERE Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St.

INFO From $92; 212-239-6200,

BOTTOM LINE Intellectually stimulating but challenging Tom Stoppard. 

If you want to exercise your body, head to the gym. To exercise your brain, I’d suggest "The Hard Problem," the Tom Stoppard play now at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
It’s only appropriate since the brain might be considered the leading player in this intellectually stimulating if challenging drama that explores the nature of consciousness — the seriously researched if impossible to explain scientific theory that gives the play its title. 
While far from his best, this is a fascinating piece of theater from the cerebral Stoppard, one that requires rapt attention at every turn as we’re asked to process a litany of complex scientific concepts. Some are familiar —nature vs. nurture, the Big Bang Theory. Others you’d know about only if your reading list includes high-level science journals — panpsychism, quantum-level brain processes, evolutionary neurobiology. Oh, and let’s not forget the life cycle of bovine parasites. 

It's enough to make your head swim, but mercifully Stoppard puts a human face on all this. We first meet Hilary (Adelaide Clemens, a bit too low-key in a tough role) as a psychology student trying to land a research position at a prestigious brain institute. A woman of faith, she reveals early on to her tutor and lover, Spike (Chris O'Shea), a deeply personal moment from her past, something she equates with morality and altruism — or, as she often puts it, being good. 

Fast forward five years and Hilary is on staff at the Krohl Institute, funded by the billionaire owner of a hedge fund (Jon Tenney) and charged by her boss (Robert Petkoff) with developing a project to give the little respected psychology department more standing in the result-oriented company (the corporate version of publish or perish). With her own life as inspiration, she attempts a study defining the nature of niceness — inherited or learned? Complications arise at every level, but more explanation would spoil the final twist. 

Directed by Jack O'Brien, a frequent Stoppard collaborator, the play moves briskly, 100 minutes without intermission, though scene changes by the ensemble of understudies (hey, at least they get a little stage time) are so highly choreographed they seem contrived. Sometimes they simply sit watching the action, no doubt engaged in their own mental exercises because this will not be an easy play to step into. 

As for the rest of us, we're left with much to ponder. Perhaps this quote from Hilary best defines the conundrum Stoppard has presented.  "We're trying to understand other minds," she tells her new assistant, "and we don't really understand our own. " 

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