Audience reaction to the performance I attended of Tom Stoppard’s superb new play The Hard Problem was disconcerting. In the fourth row, an elderly man wearing a hearing device repeatedly cried out to his wife, “I have no idea what’s going on!” Next to me a young man methodically cracked his knuckles, fidgeted, then cracked them again. And again.

Toward the end, a knockout Stoppard line that in context carried a cunning double meaning—“I’m good,” says a character in a play about whether people are good—was met with complete silence. I fear that a substantial portion of the Lincoln Center attendees must have taken a wrong turn on their way to the slapstick outing The Play That Goes Wrong.

Karoline Xu and Adelaide Clemens in The Hard Problem. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Tickets to The Hard Problem (at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through January 6) are nevertheless scarce. Don’t miss the opportunity, because this fresh, funny, insightful play is one of the winter’s best offerings. Despite the audience’s confusion, the piece isn’t particularly challenging to follow, and for a Stoppard play it’s downright zippy. In recent years, Stoppard has had some difficulty pruning his thoughts down to suitable dimensions for the stage (his three-hour Rock ’n’ Roll was an hour too long; a successor, the three-part Coast of Utopia, ran nine hours) and the balance of heart and brain tilted noticeably to the cranial. The Hard Problem, though, is his most entertaining and endearing work since Arcadia, an intellectually substantial yet effervescent piece which played upstairs in the same building’s much larger Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1995 to an appreciative audience. Back then, I suppose, people were used to grappling with ideas that took longer than a text or a tweet to explicate.

Stoppard, now eighty-one years old, is a stealthily conservative thinker whose purpose here is nothing less than to make the case for a higher being, for God. This most intellectually omnivorous of playwrights reminds us that even the greatest minds haven’t come close to solving the fundamental mysteries of existence. In a contemporary England of brain scientists, think tanks, number-crunching “quants,” and hedge funds, Stoppard’s refreshingly contrarian heroine is Hilary (sensitively played by Adelaide Clemens), a student turned mind researcher who contests the reductiveness of the materialists around her. Her rebellion is in her prayers. She prays nightly, for forgiveness, for peace, for . . . goodness. Her tutor and occasional lover, Spike (Chris O’Shea), along with everyone else in the play, is a godless rationalist who scoffs at any suggestion that human beings are anything but self-interested devices trying to keep themselves and their genes alive. He gets a bit rattled when she asks him to pray with her. Nothing fazes him except the sight of her speaking to the Almighty. “So . . . so you, as it were, pray to God, then?,” he says. But if praying is merely a meaningless ritual that will please her at no cost to him, why should her praying bother him at all? For a fellow resolutely dedicated to doing what’s rational, this antipathy to religion seems a bit senseless, and Stoppard has great fun mocking Spike and everyone in the hyper-secular order whom Spike represents.

That Stoppard and Lincoln Center are joining their considerable cultural forces to bring this play to the Manhattan heathen, cracking their knuckles as they may, is one of the more gratifying developments of this theater season.

None of these extremely clever people, nor anyone else, can resolve the basic questions posed by Stoppard through Hilary. Why are people altruistic? (But they’re not, Spike avers: all altruism is simply disguised selfishness. He’s obviously wrong). Why do people love? (They don’t, really, Spike says: hence Raphael’s Madonna and Child would better be entitled Woman Maximizing Gene Survival. He’s obviously wrong.) And what about the hard problem: how do we get from clumps of cells to consciousness? Man is no closer to an answer to that than he was in Raphael’s time. At what point do rationalists admit they at least can’t disprove that there is something more to humanity than mere biological material?

Stoppard is more of an ideas man, and a wit, than a storyteller, but he weaves these engaging arguments into a serviceable story about Hilary’s efforts, at a think tank funded by an odious American hedge fund plutocrat (Jon Tenney), to devise a psychological experiment that will support her belief that human beings have an innate disposition for goodness. The financier’s young daughter, Cathy (Katie Beth Hall), whom we meet when she says, “Dad, what’s a coincidence?,” turns out to be, in classic self-aware Stoppard style, a coincidence herself: Hilary herself gave birth to her, at fifteen, and then gave her up for adoption. The little girl turns out to play a key role as a test subject in the experiment Hilary devises, nicely fusing the personal drama with her scientific inquiry in the closing minutes of this brisk, charming play. “I’m good” never carried more weight. That Stoppard and Lincoln Center are joining their considerable cultural forces to bring this play to the Manhattan heathen, cracking their knuckles as they may, is one of the more gratifying developments of this theater season.

Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, which played off-Broadway briefly in 2000, is a puzzling choice for Broadway today (at the John Golden Theatre through January 27). Last spring the same theater hosted Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, which in its tour-de-force second act explored life, loss, memory, and dying through the eyes of a woman who was at once young, middle-aged, and near death. Three Tall Women is, at its best, harrowing, devastating, even tragic. The mood of The Waverly Gallery never approaches the tragic; it is merely a study in irritation, and to seek irritation is not why we go to the theater.

Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.

Both plays are tributes to departed women in the writer’s family. In Lonergan’s case, it is his grandmother we are watching in the incarnation of Elaine May’s Gladys Green, a daffy refugee from Nazism (the play is set in 1989–91) given to telling long, pointless stories to her grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges, who received an Oscar nomination as a grieving son in Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea). Gladys’s lair is a tidy but forlorn art gallery she runs in Greenwich Village, where it never attracts any visitors. Around the corner she has two apartments, one of which she allows Daniel to live in while he’s pursuing that career of his at a newspaper.

That’s Gladys’s perception, anyway. In fact, Daniel works as a speechwriter for the Environmental Protection Agency, but every time he tells her this she instantly forgets. Gladys forgets a lot of things, and this is funny, for a while, and then it isn’t. Invited to the Upper West Side home that her daughter, Daniel’s mother, Ellen (Joan Allen), shares with Daniel’s stepfather, Howard (David Cromer), she invariably frustrates others with her stem-winding anecdotes. Gladys can’t understand anything you say to her unless you say it loudly, then she complains that you’re shouting at her. She asks to feed the dog, is told that the dog is being trained not to beg, then asks again a few minutes later. Anyone who loses patience with Gladys (as Ellen occasionally does) causes even more consternation, as Gladys complains that she can’t understand why people are so angry with her and vows to kill herself out of spite. May is spectacularly convincing in the role, which is to say she is spectacularly annoying, and she gets more and more so as the evening goes on. The more advanced Gladys’s decline, the more her family members yearn for her death—and the more I yearned to be out of the theater. (Alas, like they, I was trapped, in my case by being seated far from the aisle.)

The Waverly Gallery feels like a dutiful tribute to a sweet but batty lady.

Lonergan doesn’t really have a play here; there is no story, merely a situation, and the subsidiary characters have nothing to do except react to Gladys. Daniel is being tortured by a girlfriend, which inspires some mordant one-liners, but we never meet her and never learn much about her. A struggling young painter from New England called Don (Michael Cera) shows up with some wares to offer; Gladys thinks them excellent and places them on the gallery walls, but no one shows up for his exhibition. He gets sucked into the Gladys vortex when she offers him the back room in which to sleep, and though free living quarters in Greenwich Village, even in 1989, are not to be belittled, he pays a substantial price in vexation by being made an unpaid member of Gladys’s support staff.

It seems obvious that a family such as this one would simply place Gladys in a nursing home, precluding any miseries such as the lengthy, agonizing sequence in which Gladys, now completely out of her mind, keeps awakening Daniel all night for three nights running. There seems to be no ethical or other impediment to the family’s handing over the poor suffering woman to professional caregivers, so the play is an exercise in contrivance as well as frustration.

The Waverly Gallery feels like a dutiful tribute to a sweet but batty lady. Perhaps a substantial play could have been built around this figure, but Lonergan didn’t even try. It’s merely a character study, but given that Gladys is no longer herself, it’s not a particularly illuminating one. It’s simply a reminder of decay and decline, with nothing like the hard-won insights of Three Tall Women or of The Father, the play by France’s Florian Zeller that was produced on Broadway two years ago in which Frank Langella painted a devastatingly detailed portrait of dementia while Zeller exploited the possibilities of theater to create an interior, nearly surreal vision of what it’s like to find one’s mind slipping away, one’s hold on space and time becoming loose and uncertain. Zeller took us on a journey to a terrifying place; Lonergan simply creates the theatrical equivalent of a permanent headache.

J., the unseen title figure in American Son (at the Booth Theatre through January 27), is a well-off white teen from Coral Gables whose parents have spent $250,000 on a private education. Having enjoyed every privilege in life, he is heading for West Point to continue his family’s long tradition of proud public service.

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale in American Son. Photo: Peter Cunningham.

Jamal, on the other hand, is a 6’2” black man with cornrows, a slouching walk, at least one friend who is wanted by the police, and a habit of wearing his pants halfway down his backside. That J. and Jamal are the same person gives Christopher Demos-Brown’s uneven but often gripping play its dramatic valence. Where is it that one can go, these days, for an honest conversation about race? Demos-Brown, a practicing lawyer in Miami, is well aware that even to ask the question is to tap dance through a minefield. Better to stay clear of engagement, the culture has decided, and instead cast aspersions on others while proclaiming one’s own virtue. Let us credit the author, then, with structuring his play around what we don’t talk about when we talk about race. If the play is, at scattered times, a bit forced, there is no question that its power grows as it goes on, and much of what Demos-Brown has to say is needful.

Shorty after 4 a.m. “on a day this coming June,” according to the program, Kendra (Kerry Washington), a black academic, is waiting nervously in a police station in Miami for news about her missing son and for reassurance from her estranged husband (Steven Pasquale), a white fbi agent who is living with another (white) woman. A (white) police officer (Jeremy Jordan) knows more than he is prepared to say about what has happened to the teen, whom Kendra is unable to reach on the phone, but he allows that there has “been an incident” and that the car Jamal was driving (which belongs to his dad) is “in the system.” Due to protocol, the parents aren’t supposed to be told more until the arrival of the public-information officer, Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee), whom we won’t meet until nearly the end of an eighty-minute, one-act play. “On one side,” the playwright has said, “there is a complete lack of reason; on the other, a complete lack of compassion.”

In his book Please Stop Helping Us, the Wall Street Journal columnist Jason L. Riley explains, harrowingly, how when he and other black children were growing up in Buffalo, some peers gradually succumbed to the entropy of “gangsta” culture, first as a kind of costume or affectation and later as a mode of existence. Neglect of standard English and schoolwork led to antisocial behavior, and antisocial behavior led to drug use and other crimes. Poor choices cost Riley’s sister and his friend Trevor their lives.

Scott, the father in the play, sees his role in Jamal’s life as keeping him focused and disciplined and well clear of such dangers, and he scores most of the rhetorical points in his long, frustrated discussion with Kendra, who grew up in the ghetto and is equally bent on saving Jamal from slipping down the class ladder she has so diligently climbed. She understands, as Scott doesn’t, that blackness is an important part of Jamal’s identity. Hence the youth has recently acquired some fondness for hanging out with other black people and posing like someone who just got out of prison. (The droopy-pants look is said to derive from the culture behind bars, where inmates aren’t allowed to wear belts to hold up their trousers.) Jamal was in a car with two other young black men when some trouble with the police began. The man driving (not Jamal) was observed buying marijuana in a housing project. A possibly major incident began, as is so often the case, with a minor infraction.

Yet the underlying reason for the police’s interest might be said to be Jamal’s attitude, his gangsta pose. The car, a Lexus, was made as noticeable as neon by the bumper sticker Jamal placed on it: “shoot cops,” it read, in large letters. (In much smaller letters, it added, “with a video camera.”) Scott, not without cause, considers this decision to have been utterly asinine. “Asking for trouble” is the phrase Lieutenant Stokes uses, and when he shows up, it turns out that he is black. He’d like a frank word with his “sister” Kendra, who derides him as an “Uncle Tom,” about how to stay alive as a black man. There is no big secret on offer: when confronted by police, do what they say, and you’ll generally be fine. Much misery could be avoided by keeping the lieutenant’s advice in mind. Kendra’s paranoid fixations—she hasn’t slept the night through since Jamal was born, and she wouldn’t let him to go to a West Coast concert because she pictured him being attacked in an alt-right burger joint on the drive—create a burden for her son. Scott’s vision for their son is the proper one. But Scott’s absence from the household led directly to Jamal’s waywardness. The younger man has been acting out, pulling such stunts as the “shoot cops” bumper sticker as a way of registering his animosity toward his cop-like dad. Demos-Brown adroitly melds social dysfunction with family breakdown. What this American son is most acutely lacking in his home is an American father.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 5, on page 40
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