One of the ongoing themes in Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem is what a brain looks like when it’s scanned. If you had had scans of the actors’ brains last night, as they entered PJ Clarke’s restaurant, after the first preview of the Stoppard drama, I’m sure you would have seen intense activity in their right orbitofrontal cortexes. In layperson’s terms: they were hungry.
Few things work up an appetite more than a performance. The actors probably haven’t eaten since an hour or two (or more) before showtime. And when it’s a first preview, a drink, whether soft or hard, is also much needed. First performances take a toll on the nerves, and straighteners are welcome. Plus the actors have gotten over the first public hurdle and deserve to be rewarded.
Stoppard can take any subject under the sun and make it engaging, so I was not surprised that the discussions at the post-show dinner were equally wide-ranging and instructive. For example, I learned that the father of cast member Jon Tenney was a physicist at Princeton and that other of Tenney’s forebears were in finance. Tenney’s character in The Hard Problem, fittingly, is a financier with an interest in science.
I learned that Eshan Bajpay – Amal in the drama – has a very serious interest in Al Pacino. Especially the work of the Pacino in the 1970s: movies like Panic in Needle Park and plays like The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. Bajpay said: “I’ve checked at the Library of the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center, to find Pavlo Hummel on tape, but they don’t have one.” Bajpay and I did a thorough conversational tour of early Pacino, but it was only after I left PJ Clarke’s that I realized we hadn’t gotten around to Pacino’s Broadway debut, in 1969. It was in Don Petersen’s Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, at the Belasco. The run was short-lived, but Pacino won a Tony. If they have a copy of that production at the Performing Arts library, I’ll starve my right orbitofrontal cortex for a week.
Of the 15 actors in The Hard Problem company, only three (Tenney, Robert Petkoff, and Baylen Thomas) have performed in LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse, where the new Stoppard is housed. At the post-preview party, one of the Newhouse newbies told me how startled she was at the intimacy of the space with an audience present. This actor, who requested that I not use her name, told me what she overheard a woman in the audience say as the first scene was being set up. “This woman,” the actor revealed, “turned to her companion and whispered, ‘I’ll help you follow the science. I watch NOVA.’”
Potential audience members need not watch NOVA or do any kind of homework preliminary to attending The Hard Problem. As Stoppard says about all his plays, no matter how brilliant their flights of fact and fancy: “All you need is a curious mind and an open heart.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com