Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

A.C.T. drama tackles altruism, God, opposites — with wit

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★☆☆

Psych student Hilary (Brenda Meaney) and Spike (Dan Clegg), her lover and academic advisor, ponder “The Hard Problem” at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Psych student Hilary (Brenda Meaney) and Spike (Dan Clegg), her lover and academic advisor, ponder “The Hard Problem” at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne.

“The Hard Problem” is 79-year-old Tom Stoppard’s first new play in nine years.

It was worth the almost decade-long intermission.

Despite the drama now at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco not being his best.

Or his wittiest.

Hilary, a brainy psych student, and Spike, her edgy tutor, are bedmates who love and hate debating differences between self-interest and self-sacrifice, science and religion.

She’s a believer in God, he’s a believer in himself.

She’s tormented not only by philosophical enigmas but the memory of having given away her infant daughter.

Yet the play’s central academic question — the hard problem of the title — is what Stoppard addresses throughout: “Are the mind and the brain the same thing?”

Or, put another way, “What is consciousness?”

Heady stuff indeed.

What else would you expect from the man who created “Arcadia,” “The Real Thing” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”?

Still I left the theater convinced Stoppard, who’s tackled both obvious and obscure theoretical and ethical issues since first writing for the theater in 1960, has now penned his most “versus” play — coincidence vs. miracles, feeling vs. thinking, altruism vs. egoism.

While cramming what seems like 107,573 words into 100 minutes.

And about 440 examples of clever word play.

All in keeping with his admission in a Simon Hodgson article in the program that he has “a habit of writing plays in which two points of view are being argued.”

The play, first produced last year in London, also focuses on a Daddy Warbucks-type character and his hedge fund at the height of the financial bubble’s bursting in the late 2000s.

Director Carey Perloff made sure the playwright’s sporadically redundant motifs moved at a pace that kept me from checking my watch more than once — and that I never got bored despite the work being non-emotional even while dealing with emotional subject matter such as adoption and love.

That kind of task may have become easier for her with the passing decades.

“The Hard Problem” marks the tenth time she (who’s also the company’s artistic director) and Stoppard have worked together during her 25-year tenure at the theater.

Again she deserves credit for the acting being top-drawer, which I’ve come to expect at A.C.T., now in its 50th year.

Brenda Meaney, who previously appeared in the company’s production of Stoppard’s “Indian Ink,” makes Hilary believable despite a totally predictable plot turn.

And Dan Clegg, whom I’d appreciated opposite David Strathairn in the American Conservatory Theater staging of “Chester Bailey,” portrays Spike with apt neuroscientific distance and disdain.

Stoppard, who was “in residence” for A.C.T.’s rehearsal process, has, interestingly, ensured diversity in the cast by writing in an African American woman, a Chinese woman, an Indian man, a lesbian or two and a child.

And the British accents and occasional slang words he calls for (like bollocks) shouldn’t bother any true theater lover.

Meanwhile, Andrew Boyce’s contemporary scenic design and arresting lighting effects by Russell H. Champa are pleasurably conspicuous.

I view Sir Tom even when he’s merely mildly satisfying as decidedly more enjoyable than a lot of lesser playwrights at their best.

And I enjoy him being the anti-David Mamet — that is, where the American playwright relishes having his characters cut off each other or talk over them, the Czech-born Brit consistently has them spout full sentences or paragraphs without interruption.

If mind or word games give you a migraine, stay away. But if you’re a mental-puzzle addict, by all means go.

Personally, I always remember the intellectual mazes Stoppard leads me through, not his plots or characters. So the cerebral labyrinths in “The Hard Problem,” indeed, will be my consciousness’ flashbacks in years yet to be.

“The Hard Problem” plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through Nov. 13. Night performances, 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Matinees, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $105 (subject to change). Information: (415) 749-2228 or

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