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First Nighter: Stoppard's Hard Problem Neatly Solved, Last of the De Mullins Deftly Revived, Homer's Odyssey in 60 Minutes

02/22/2015 06:47 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2015

London -- Almost immediately after Tom Stoppard's new and intellectually thrilling play, The Hard Problem, at the National Theatre's Dorfman, begins, the just-about-peerless playwright has his characters discourse on the title's reference. It's a good thing he does. Stoppard has lifted it from Australian philosopher David Chalmers's phrase for the elusive origins of consciousness: How do we know what we know?

A challenging question--one of the most challenging--and it's not a foregone conclusion that all audiences will follow it, although they'd be well advised to make the effort. (The Hard Problem will be broadcast live from the National on March 18.)

Hilary, a student, is talking the complex topic over with mentor Spike (Damien Molony). Other subjects festooning the snappy banter matter range from the primacy of science to the existence of God. Spike is on the side of science, which precludes a higher being, but Hilary holds out for more. When in a subsequent scene, teacher and student are now having an affair and Spike catches Hilary praying, their differences intensify.

Much of the ensuing action takes place at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, where Hilary lands a slot with demanding superior Leo (Jonathan Coy) and has the occasional run in with super-rich founder Jerry (Anthony Calf), father to adopted daughter Cathy (Hayley Canham, Daisy Jacob or Eloise Webb). And pay close attention to the chat Jerry and Cathy have about the word "coincidence," while keeping in mind Hilary's informing that at 15, she gave a child up for adoption.

As usual, Stoppard is canny about the things that occupy him--look at his way around Fermat's Theorem in his superb Arcadia--and, as is his inclination, works those interests into human stories. To unfold this one, he includes competitor for Hilary's position Amal (Parth Thakerar), Hilary's maths-strong assistant Bo (Vera Chok), Krohl Pilates instructor Julia (Rosie Hilal) and Julia's partner and Krohl staffer Ursula (Lucy Robinson).

Ever wily, Stoppard looks at first as if he's disguising a lecture on scientific thought as a play. Not by a long chalk. He's examining a group of people engaged in scientific pursuits but not necessarily confirming their beliefs as they live their daily, often interconnected--is it just coincidence?--lives.

He presents them acting out the scientific dilemmas they're pursuing, such as the reality--or not--of altruistic behavior as opposed to actions motivated solely out of self-interest. By the time he's completed his chockfull intermissionless 100-minute latest work, he's upended several situations he introduced.

Perhaps the first comment to make about the cast, directed by Nicholas Hytner with his expected clarity and feeling, is that most of them have been asked to rattle on about heady subjects and often at break-neck pace. What's most impressive is that they all give the impression of knowing exactly what they're saying. They probably do, and they're as good at the people-in-interpersonal-circumstances requirements as they are when talking science.

Above Bob Crowley's tidy set hangs an installation composed of many narrow vertical tubes with cords hanging from them. During scene changes different colored lights dance while Benjamin Powell plays Johann Sebastian Bach fugues. That's yet another canny production notion, since the stress here is on technology and mathematical conceits and the potential interplay with human emotions. Yet again, Stoppard's point is elegantly pressed home.

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Apparently St. John Hankin's drama The Last of the De Mullins hasn't been seen around these parts since its initial bow in 1908. A puzzling oversight, since it might have been greeted any time in the last 50 years as an early feminist drama--one that picked up on the plight of certain women after Henrik Ibsen's Nora slammed the door.

Never mind the delay. Here it is, briskly revived at the compact Jermyn Street Theatre and staunchly making its case for women's independence. Janet De Mullin, now calling herself Mrs. Seagrave (Charlotte Powell), returns home a supposed widow after an eight-year absence. Her father Mr. De Mullin (Stuart Organ) is feared to be on his deathbed.

Not only does she bring her son Johnny Seagrave (Jenk Oz or Rufus King-Dabbs) with her, she also brings the troubles accruing from his birth out of wedlock. Janet retreated, because Johnny's father Monty Bulstead (Benjamin Fisher) had abruptly gone off to soldier, and Janet wasn't convinced she wanted to marry him anyway.

She's kept Monty's fatherhood a secret, although he arrives while she's home and the word gets out to her mother Mrs. De Mullin (Roberta Taylor) but not her father. Nevertheless, Janet's determination not to give up the successful London hat shop she's been running to keep a roof over their two heads assures her continued estrangement from the family but defiantly not from herself.

Directed with the right amount of edge by Joshua Stamp-Simon on Victoria Johnstone's serviceable set, the cast is uniformly strong. But while a case for women's independence is offered, it may not fully convince contemporary audiences. Though happy on her own, Janet does advise nervous sister Hester (Maya Wasowicz) about a woman's need to be pretty. She also sermonizes to the family about a woman's major purpose: to have children. She'd probably get resistance on that score from today's liberated women.

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If you had to pick a single adjective to describe George Mann's hour-long performance of Homer's Odyssey, you might settle on "kinetic." Though when the audience enters he's sprawled on the Brick Hall floor in the buzzing beneath-Waterloo-Station Vault, the instant the lights lower and come up on him again, he spirals up in one startling move and begins recounting Odysseus's nine-year journey home from the 10-year Trojan War.

Mann and co-creator Nir Paldi don't wedge Homer's entire epic poem into the allotted 60 minutes. They focus mostly on the traveling man's arrival where he finds the carousing suitors for wife Penelope's hand. She's held out, claiming she won't choose one until she's been assured her warrior husband is dead, but time has been passing. Son Telemachus has been itching to take on the troublesome gang.

Mentioning stops with Calypso and the Cyclops on his way to Penelope and Telemachus. Odysseus ar first pretends to be an old man, but then throws himself into the crucial archery contest and then the inevitable battle,

Mann, bearded and fit, is full of sometimes brisk, sometimes graceful Jacques Lecoq-like mime action, but he's also full of fury and sounds. For instance, he mimics a mean wind. The actor has been doing this knockout (in more ways than one) Homer take--created for his and Paldi's Ad Infinitum Theatre--since 2009, and he only remains here until March 1.