Fans of Tom Stoppard who are used to the fizzy humor of Travesties, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or Arcadia should be cautioned that The Hard Problem finds him in his other mode, tackling serious issues with less levity, as he did in The Coast of Utopia and The Real Thing. This time around the paramount concern is the scientific label used as the title: how does consciousness come about? Connected to it are notions of altruism vs. egoism, with doses of coincidence, conscience, evolution, divinity, business ethics and other meaty subjects thrown in. And yet there are still moments of humor in Jack O’Brien’s fascinating production of this twisty play—a brainiac’s sumptuous meal laid out for the layman.
The two WASPish couples at the center of Sarah Ruhl’s sexy/bonkers magical realist tragicomedy How to Transcend a Happy Marriage could have walked in from any number of other American plays. You know the type: they read The Atlantic, wear Joy Division T-shirts un-ironically, start each new year by reading a play, and fall over themselves to avoid the appearance of political incorrectness. Their living rooms are the familiar battlegrounds of bourgeois drama from Akhtar to Zola. The bloody goat carcass suspended over David Zinn’s set, though, makes it clear that we’re in the Ruhl-iverse, and little about the next two hours will be business-as-usual.