REVIEWS: “The Hard Problem”, “Natural Shocks”, and “The Thanksgiving Play”
Below is a roundup look at three new plays that are currently running Off-Broadway:
“The Hard Problem” (New Play, Lincoln Center Theatre): Director Jack O’Brien likens the experience of seeing a play by Tom Stoppard (“Arcadia”, “Travesties”, and “The Coast of Utopia”) to being caught in an “astonishing blizzard of intellectual stimulation”. You might not understand everything that is happening, but all the same, the intriguing tendrils of complex ideas and their precise articulation in pithy dialogue is exciting to behold. While the works of Mr. Stoppard’s that I have encountered usually amount to a satisfying whole, his latest play, “The Hard Problem” (2015), remains more of a puzzle.
The “hard problem” referenced in the title is the cross-scientific-and-philosophical endeavor of explaining consciousness and its creation by and function within the brain. We know what the brain is and does, and how it does it, but understanding why is one mystery scientists have still yet to crack. That debate over the nature of the mind, and particularly whether there is such a thing as altruism—being good for the sake of it—or if all human behavior is really just amorally self-interested, runs throughout “The Hard Problem”.
The play opens as Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), an upstanding psychology student, is preparing for a job interview at the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science with the aid of her hunky and pedantic math tutor (and occasional sex partner), the cynical Spike (Chris O’Shea). Following an unconventional and combative interview with Leo (Robert Petkoff), and a five year time jump, Hilary gets the gig and delves into her pursuit of solving the hard problem, later with Chinese scientist Bo (Karoline Xu) by her side. Their groundbreaking experiment, which provides evidence for Hilary’s proposition that children are innately altruistic, is later revealed to rest upon data selectively manipulated by Bo; meanwhile, Hilary discovers (spoiler alert!) that the infant she gave up at birth as a teenager (Cathy, Katy Beth Hall) is the adopted daughter of the man who endows the institute (Jerry, Jon Tenney).
While the play remains intellectually engaging throughout, these plot threads do not weave a recognizable garment. Instead, there is plenty of lively discourse about the nature of human behavior and belief, with Mr. Stoppard’s own thesis concealed by the contradicting victories of his characters’ opposing arguments. The hard problem, it turns out, is too hard to solve in one play, but the feast of ideas presented here is nonetheless nourishing. Opened November 19th; runs through January 6th at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. Tickets.
“Natural Shocks” (New Play, Women’s Project Theater): Lauren Gunderson holds the distinction of being America’s most produced living playwright in 2016 and 2017, and most produced female playwright, period. And yet, the twenty plays she’s written are rarely performed on New York stages. WP Theater corrects that with its current world premiere presentation of Ms. Gunderson’s latest work, “Natural Shocks”, under the direction of May Adrales.
This one woman play begins as Angela (Pascale Armand, “Eclipsed”) is forced to take refuge in her basement (realistic, subterranean set by Lee Savage) when she finds herself in the path of a tornado. As winds occasionally howl above, Angela launches into a sprawling, 75 minute monologue of self-reflection delivered with a cutting side-eye and wry smile. Admitting she’s prone to little lies, Angela goes on to talk about her unhappy marriage and recent affair, her job as a “professional worrier” (aka insurance agent), risk literacy and the science of survival, her mother’s black walnut pound cake recipe, and the mortal choices facing Hamlet. Life, she concludes, much like a tornado’s occurrence, is all a matter of chance.
I find it impossible to write more about this play without divulging the meaning of its central metaphor, so stop reading at the end of this sentence if you don’t want it spoiled. As Angela’s monologue progresses, spinning in its own vortex, it slowly becomes clear that the tornado she’s hiding from might not be a literal tornado. In the final 10 minutes or so, she bluntly states that the tornado is in fact her abusive husband, and the domestic abuse she bears is a precursor to a future act of public violence at his hand. The play demonstrates an idea, the sad privacy of domestic violence and the horror of its public cost, but because of that big, late reveal, most of the time is spent weaving a somewhat plodding story of seeming non sequitur.
Ms. Armand, who flubbed many lines the night I attended, is engaging, but the format of the play becomes tedious despite its brief running time, and ultimately reveals little about its subject matter beyond the sheer act of its dramatization. Before this premiere, “Natural Shocks” received over 100 readings in 45 states and the District of Columbia. While not her strongest, most impactful work, the writing is nonetheless taut and lively, and evinces great skill. I look forward to seeing more of Ms. Gunderson’s work in New York, lest we be deprived of what the rest of the country has already experienced. Opened November 8th; runs through November 25th at WP Theater. Discount Tickets.
“The Thanksgiving Play” (New Play, Playwrights Horizons): this delightfully absurd new comedy by Larissa FastHorse finds four white people perilously trying to create a culturally sensitive educational play about Thanksgiving in this “post-post-racial” moment. Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a high school drama teacher facing a mob of 300 parents angry about her recent production of “The Iceman Cometh”, and her “mutually respecting” partner, Jaxton (Greg Keller), an “actor–slash–yoga dude”, are self-described “enlightened white allies”: she a nervous vegan, he usually in some phase of a sun salutation. Elementary school history teacher and closeted playwright Caden (Jeffrey Bean) comes aboard to act and serve as dramaturg, while Logan uses diversity grant funds to hire Alicia (Margo Seibert), a Native American actress from Los Angeles who ends up being a white woman who dabbles in “red face” to get jobs.
Under the playful direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, these four, rather stock characters embark on a rehearsal-long quest to craft a “revolutionary” piece of devised theatre that will break the centuries-old cycle of lies, stereotypes, and inequality surrounding both the Thanksgiving Day narrative and the history of indigenous people in America—or “Turtle Island”, as Jaxton posits the appropriate name might be—in order to properly educate their future elementary school age audience. In attempting to deconstruct myths and offer a Native American perspective, though, Logan and Jaxton come to realize they can “see color but cannot speak for it”, and end up following their dogged desire for equality to an absurdly logical outcome that doubles down on erasure. While skewering well-worn rituals of pageant alongside the phenomenon of liberal guilt, Ms. FastHorse’s play delivers plenty of laughs but, like the exploratory rehearsal it dramatizes, mostly moves in fits and starts.
Ms. FastHorse is half Sicangu Lakota and was raised on a reservation in South Dakota before launching a career as a ballet dancer and becoming a writer; she is the first Native American playwright to have a play produced by Playwrights Horizons, and likely one of the few to have a play produced on a New York stage. “The Thanksgiving Play” bluntly examines how even the most well-intentioned white people can get tripped up in their attempts to correct for the sins of their ancestors, using comedy to shine a light on the difficulty of confronting and talking about race and history. What is the best way to celebrate Native American Heritage Month (November) and teach the proper history of Thanksgiving? It certainly is not whatever these four, slightly manic and befuddled people come up with as their play, but maybe it is seeing Ms. FastHorse’s play about their play on stage, hearing her voice, and seeing her perspective. Opened November 5th; runs through December 2nd at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Discount Tickets.