ACT attempts to solve Stoppard’s Hard Problem

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Psychology student Hilary (Brenda Meaney, second from right) celebrates being published with colleagues from the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science in the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem. Below: Spike (Dan Clegg) and Hilary (Meaney) meet up at a conference in Venice, Italy. Photos by Kevin Berne

All through American Conservatory Theater’s production of The Hard Problem you can feel playwright Tom Stoppard making an effort to be accessible. With a play about the very nature of consciousness – the “hard problem” about not just the knowing about what’s at our human core but the knowing about the knowing – there’s a danger of a) boring a lay audience with intricate lectures on neuroscience or b) becoming so involved in the intellectual pursuits of the play that actual drama. Stoppard slips a little into both camps during his play’s one hour and 40 minutes, but it’s hard to fault a playwright for being too smart or too passionate about the subject he’s exploring.

This production marks the 17th Stoppard play produced at ACT in the last 50 years and the 10th directed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff. It’s Stoppard’s first new play in a decade, and as mildly entertaining as the play is, it feels like minor Stoppard – a lot of interesting ideas presented in an attractive package without a terribly compelling story or characters. This theatrical exploration of the nature of consciousness (and its relationship to altruism and the world’s financial markets) comes at a pop-culture moment when a television show, HBO’s “Westworld,” is exploring similar territory in a completely different (and more satisfyingly dramatic) way. Stoppard gives us neuroscientists, psychologists and hedge fund brokers debating about the nature of the mind and what guides us as human beings, while HBO gives us a theme park inhabited by lifelike robots on the verge of sentience. These robots are programmed to deliver humanlike responses, complete with a certain amount of randomness thrown in to make it highly realistic, but they’re machines incapable of actual original thought and feeling (or are they?).

Stoppard’s appealing main character is Hilary (Brenda Meaney), a psychologist whose mind is capable of considering elements beyond the scientific in her quest to understand the difference between the brain the mind, between evolutionary purpose and spiritual revelation. She dares to bring the concept of God into scientific discourse, and the scientists around her balk as if she had proposed chakra alignment as a cure for cancer.

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It seems the people around Hilary exist to provide breadcrumbs on her trail toward enlightenment of some kind. The spiky boyfriend Spike (the ever-amiable Dan Clegg, who is supposed to read a decade older than Hilary but doesn’t) and the brash brain scientist Amal (Vandit Bhatt) challenge and provoke (and occasionally demean) her, the colleagues (Narea Kang as Bo and Anthony Fusco as Leo) who fall in love with her and the big money bags who funds the brain institute where she works (the pitch-perfect Mike Ryan as Jerry, who seems to be in a different, more engaging play) leads her to the rather corny heart of the play where we consider the notion of coincidence vs. miracle. There’s also a lovely couple – scientist Ursula (Stacy Ross) and Pilates instructor Julia (Safiya Fredericks) – who seem to be hanging around for no apparent reason other than to employ two wonderful actors who don’t get nearly enough to do.

Stoppard has a lot of thoughts to share about the mysterious center of our humanity, but he does so in scenes that are ostensibly about something else – competing for a slot at the Krohl Institute, trying to get laid, having a disastrous dinner party (why must brainiacs fail so miserably at the domestic arts?), trysting in Venice – and that keeps the play on a relatable, human scale. Perloff’s production keeps to a brisk pace (too brisk in some scenes where it’s hard to pick up on everything being said), with the coolly efficient sliding panels of Andrew Boyce’s set shifting the action from laboratories to apartments to backyards to pilates classes, all with the aid of a rear projection screen that is mostly filled with clouds (as in “head in the…”).

There’s not a whole lot of drama here other than the publication of an article with dubious scientific merits and a deep dark secret that isn’t much of either. There’s a strange alpha-male confrontation between hedge fund gazillionaire Jerry and Amal that feels like it’s a different, more vital play suddenly encroaching on this rather stately one, and the sexual chemistry between Spike and Hilary never really registers, even when Spike cavorts around in Hilary’s micro-mini negligee.

There are bursts of humor (this is Stoppard after all), and some of the brainy brain stuff is thought provoking, but The Hard Problem ends up being more problematic than engaging.

Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem> continues through Nov. 13 in an American Conservatory Theater production at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$125 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Reality vs. imagination in ACT’s appealing Chester Bailey

Recovering from devastating injuries in a Long Island hospital room, Chester Bailey (Dan Clegg, right) is visited by Dr. Philip Cotton (David Strathairn) in American Conservatory Theater’s world-premiere staging of Joseph Dougherty’s Chester Bailey at the Strand Theater. Below: Bailey (left) and Cotton work through some serious issues of reality vs. imagination. Photos by Kevin Berne

In Joseph Dougherty’s Chester Bailey, it’s reality vs. imagination, and the audience wins.

This world-premiere production from American Conservatory Theater is a modest two-hander performed in the intimate Strand Theater, an old-fashioned feeling play woven through with dry humor and compassion. Think of it sort of as an Oliver Sacks case history come to life with a modicum of theatrical flair.

I say a modicum because, for all intents and purposes, this could be a radio play, which seems fitting for a story set in 1945 and dealing with the effects of the World War II. The design elements – industrial girders and windows set by Nina Ball, sharp lighting by Robert Hand – are strong, but this is really an exercise in storytelling and listening to two characters, played by two appealing actors, figure each other out.

It takes a half an hour of the play’s 90 minutes for the two characters to actually be in the same room, but until then, we get their backstory. David Strathairn is Dr. Philip Cotton, who is working at a mental hospital in Long Island. Aside from personal details like his failed marriage and his affair with his boss’ wife, we learn that one of his most interesting patients is Chester Bailey, played by Dan Clegg, a Brooklyn man in his early 20s whose parents interfered to keep him out of the war by getting him a job in the naval shipyards. Their efforts to safeguard their only child backfired when Chester was involved in a terrible incident that robbed him of his sight and his hands. The thing is that Chester, teetering on that line between imagination and delusion, thinks he can see and thinks he still has two perfectly good hands.


Developed in New Strands, ACT’s new works program, Chester Bailey has the feel of a ghost story (Jo Stafford singing “Haunted Heart” as the lights come up sets just the right tone) because between the dueling narratives, we’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s not, and that’s good for the drama. Director Ron Lagomarsino effectively twines Chester and Dr. Cotton’s stories to the point that all of us – characters and audience – are hoping the ghosts are real.

Strathairn is such good company on stage. His Dr. Cotton is droll and wise and ultimately the kind of doctor we’d all wish for – he’s smart enough to know when to stop being a clinician and start being a human being. Clegg, once you get past his unconvincing Brooklyn accent, is an endearing, complicated Chester, a young man tormented by not serving his country and then abandoned through a series of misfortunes. It’s a tricky role because we have to like Chester and understand his submission to his parents, his denial surrounding his injuries and his rather remarkable ability to create and inhabit a reality so different from the one he’s living.

There’s nothing groundbreaking or particularly edgy in Chester Bailey. It’s an intriguing story, well told and warmth, intelligence and humor.

Joseph Dougherty’s Chester Bailey continues through June 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25 to $75 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit