The Hard Problem, the latest play by Tom Stoppard, concerns Hilary, a psychology student who is newly employed as a research assistant at a neuroscience institute. But when I spoke with Jack O’Brien, the LCT production’s director, the other day before a rehearsal, we spoke less about plot specifics – it’s too early in the production process to give much away – than about other matters.
Brendan Lemon: At the first day of rehearsal for The Hard Problem, you spoke of your longtime collaboration with Tom Stoppard here at Lincoln Center Theater – Hapgood, The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia, and now the new play. Can you elaborate?
Jack O’Brien: I’m not quite sure what our affinity is or why we do so well together. Which does not mean we will do well here -- I’m not overconfident ever. But I have to believe in us because when I look back over the work we’ve done together there’s a similarity in what happens.
BL: Which is?
JO: We’re not shooting down the same gallery. Tom awakens in certain people the necessity to analyze and debate. I don’t feel I’m in the same room as he is in terms of analytical work or debating. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, I try to find the societal and personal angles. As I was watching our early rehearsals yesterday I was stumbling to find what style this production is -- what it is I’m trying to evoke. And I found the characters reassuringly youthful. I found them behaving like students in a dorm. As apart from intellectuals tilting with giant issues and theses. And that made me very happy.
BL: The Hard Problem had its world premiere in early 2015 at the National Theatre in London, where it was directed by Nicholas Hytner. Can you speak a little about the genesis of the LCT production?
JO: I was originally supposed to direct the play two years ago. For a variety of reasons it didn’t happen. In the meantime I readdressed the piece completely. Tom was gently reminding me that the characters are very young. Which made me think of what Bob Crowley said when he was designing this play in London. I said: “How’s it going?” Bob said: “If you didn’t know this was Tom Stoppard, you’d think this was a young man’s play.” I re-approached the material with that in mind. And a more tender, intimate play has begun to surface from the intellectualism and precision that I saw originally.
BL: At the first rehearsal, you said that Tom doesn’t write about one thing ever but about a lot of things.
JO: With The Invention of Love, people said: “It’s about A. E. Houseman.” But that play isn’t just about A. E. Houseman. And God knows that The Coast of Utopia, which concerns the intellectual dawning of philosophic thought in Russia, was about a lot of other things as well. Tom synthesizes matters into a universe utterly his own.
BL: So what is The Hard Problem about?
JO: It’s very clearly two plays for me. There’s the spoken play and there’s an unspoken play.
BL: Isn’t that always the case, at least for a good play?
JO: I guess that’s true. But in this case it’s very much the point. And that’s the challenge. You have to have a clear idea of the unspoken cost and how it affects people to know why they are discussing the things they’re discussing. And yet Tom doesn’t tell you much about the unspoken play. He infers a lot. And he lays wonderful cues and dimensions for you to read. The challenge is to keep the ghost play in play all the time.
BL: No character is talking about that unspoken, crucial aspect…
JO: …because nobody knows about it. Or, rather, there are only two or three people in the play who know about it. But it is the raison d’etre for the belief of Hilary, the central character. And without a raison d’etre for belief you don’t believe.
BL: The play needs her character to push against the received knowledge of the scientists in order to have drama.
JO: Yes. Another dramatic thing about Hilary is that everybody wants her, but she does not solicit anyone.
BL: That’s why they want her.
JO: I suppose. She has appeal for men and women and she has virtually nothing to secure that attraction.
BL: Attraction is not just about data but about the visceral.
JO: It’s about the unspoken. That’s Tom’s enormous skill. And for me his tender humanity, which we try to find in everything we’ve ever done. Tom said something about this a day or two ago -- he admitted that I’m very emotional and he’s not. And I wonder if that’s true. That’s his analysis, that’s the way he positions it. Tom sees that I’m bringing something to the table that he doesn’t necessarily think he’s pushing. Not that it isn’t there. It is.
BL: Let’s say something to be fair to the London directors of Tom’s plays: you have the advantage of not doing the premieres.
JO: There’s no question about it. I’m indebted to those people. I’ve gone to school on some of the best minds in the theater today – Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre, Nick Hytner. I said to Tom last night about The Coast of Utopia: to be fair to Trevor, he was staging the first play and you were still writing the third. So I don’t think the two of you knew what the hell you had. In the intervening years before I directed it I could begin to pull back the camera.
BL: You warm Tom’s plays up.
JO: I think that’s true.
BL: Not sentimentalize but warm up.
JO: My phrase is, which I mean affectionately, is that I try to put sex on the stage. Tom is a man who loves women and writes well for them.
BL: You come to The Hard Problem having recently directed The Front Page and Carousel on Broadway. Those productions had stars. The Hard Problem doesn’t. You have accomplished actors but mostly younger actors.
JO: Stars take a lot of time and I like to think I’m good with them. I think they’d agree. My approach doesn’t change with stars or no stars. But older people are more chary than younger people. You have to spend a lot of time convincing them of your sincerity and affection. Having said that, I like a lot of high-powered people. I think they’re fun.
BL: Do you approach a big musical like Carousel differently than you are approaching The Hard Problem?
JO: No. I never think: this is Shakespeare and this is a musical and this is an opera. I have the same set of rules for everything. The voicing changes but the melody remains the same.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com