Science is real—and really dramatic—at the Edlavitch DCJCC, the home to Theater J’s latest production, The How and the Why. Written by acclaimed writer and producer Sarah Treem, whose credits include the hit TV shows The Affair and House of Cards, the play deals with everything from evolution and academia to feminism and family. If that sounds to you like a lot of ground to cover in just two hours, you’re not wrong.
The piece is brought to life by Valerie Leonard as Zelda and Katie deBuys as Rachel. Zelda is an evolutionary biologist who worked hard to break through the glass ceiling in the ‘70s by putting forth The Grandmother Hypothesis, which seeks to explain the existence of menopause in humans.
Her foil is Rachel, a 28-year-old student who’s looking to make her mark with her own breakthrough that posits that women menstruate as a way to protect themselves from the toxicity of men’s sperm. The two come together when Rachel pays Zelda a visit at her office the day before a prestigious conference.
There’s a lot of interesting discussion of scientific theory for the armchair biologist, but the really fascinating subject is the talk about the gendered nature of their work. Both women have chosen topics that have been easily dismissed because they don’t directly impact their male colleagues. Zelda, for all of her success, has been labeled a bitch and lives alone without a husband or family, while Rachel inhabits a post-feminist bubble where she’s happy to share her success with her loser boyfriend if it means she doesn’t have to come home to an empty apartment. Their characterizations may tend toward the cliché, but much of the banter between them uncovers complex generational divides and shifting allegiance to work, womanhood, and love.
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The How and the Why
closes March 12, 2017
Details and tickets
As soon as Rachel steps into Zelda’s office (which set designer Paige Hathaway ingeniously created to transition seamlessly from ivory tower throne room to shoes-stuck-to-the-floor dive bar in no time), it’s clear that there’s more to the two women’s relationship than teacher and student or even veteran and upstart. The fact that the characters don’t come out an acknowledge it until 40 minutes into the play only serves to distract and frustrate the audience.
Leonard and deBuys are given a lot of work to do in this play, and under Shirley Serotsky’s direction they gamely rise to the challenge and are clearly enjoying themselves. Both actors spend nearly every minute of the two hour play on stage, and have to swing from spouting complex scientific terms to building real emotional connection—the latter of which tends to suffer at the hand of the former.
This back and forth is most evident in the second act, during which a moment that is surely meant to be explosive falls flat and all of the emotional build-up is neatly deflated by a scientific answer so seemingly simple that it should have been evident to both of these brilliant women from the get-go.
The How and the Why seeks to prove that science and sentimentality can comfortably coexist in the theatre. And while the erudite dialog and strong performances proves its head’s in the right place, it sometimes falters in the moments when the heart’s not fully in it.
The How and the Why by Sarah Treem . Directed by Shirley Serotsky . Cast: Katie deBuys and Valerie Leonard. Set design: Paige Hathaway . Lighting design: Martha Mountain . Costume design: Danielle Preston . Sound design: Justin Schmitz . Stage manager: Kate Kilbane . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by John Bavoso.