Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The How and the Why Provides Stylish and Intelligent Entertainment
Fifty-six-year-old Zelda Kahn is a heralded Harvard professor of evolutionary biology. After all, Kahn formulated the theory that the evolutionary development of menopause in women allowed for them to focus on the care and survival of their existing children and grandchildren, permitting both to remain dependent and develop further their minds and survival skills, and evolve beyond the monkey. Kahn is being visited at her Harvard office by the 28-year-old NYU evolutionary biology graduate student, Rachel Hardeman. Zelda, who appears to be in the habit of dealing with stress by fortifying herself with hard liquor, almost immediately breaks out the alcohol as she skillfully, albeit awkwardly, navigates her way through the conversation. Rachel, sullen and hostile, is a hair trigger away from terminating her visit. This first meeting is patently a most awkward situation for both women. It is clear that they share a back story fraught with emotional weight.
Thus begins Sarah Treem's two handed comedy-drama The How and the Why. Working within a familiar format which requires revelations which are hardly surprising, Treem has written a literate and intelligent entertainment which is certain to entertain mainstream theatregoers.
Rachel has developed an original theory about the evolution of menstruation, but her theory was not selected for presentation at an important evolutionary biologists conference. The theories and the response to the conference presentation of Rachel's after Zelda arranges its acceptance is the MacGuffin of the evening. But what a MacGuffin it is, for Treem treats us to explorations of actual evolutionary biology theories which are clearly elucidated. Furthermore, we are able to grasp the joy of their discovery and development, and find ourselves intellectually evaluating, even doubting, them. It is a very smart writer who is able to provide us with the pleasure of feeling smarter than we may actually be.
While the evolution of the relationship between Zelda and Rachel may be too formulaic and plot heavy to be fully involving, Treem nicely explores the sacrifices particular to their gender that dedicated, highly achieving women make in order to achieve their success. The young Zelda and Rachel appear to be cut from the same cloth, and Zelda is determined to guide Rachel toward the same decisions that she herself made. Rather than overloading her play with details from the past, a sharper focus on this would make their relationship more emotionally involving.
The production is aided immeasurably by the quirky performance of Mercedes Ruehl. With nervous gestures, quivering voice and uncertain body movements, Ruehl's Zelda makes it clear that she continues to maintain her professional success and mastery of her situation with humanity, a sense of humor, and considerable effort and sacrifice. However, neither Treem nor Ruehl would have us get maudlin or sentimental about it.
Bess Rous accurately conveys the peevish and skeptical attitude that Rachel has toward Zelda. Her expressed concern for her boyfriend / fellow graduate student makes us aware of a softer side of her nature. However, as all her scenes are with Zelda, there is no honest opportunity for Rous to show it.
Emily Mann has directed with a light touch, placing Treem's sharp dialogue center stage, and permitting Ruehl to display her engaging stage naturalism. Daniel Ostling's sets, Zelda's Harvard office and the back room of a bar, are richly detailed and evocative. They are within a large rectangular box at center stage, yet quite rich.
Sarah Treem has a gift for presenting audiences with The How and the Why with utmost clarity.
The How and the Why continues performances (Evenings Tuesday-Thursday & Sunday 7:30 pm; Friday-Saturday 8 pm / Matinees: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through February 13, 2011 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.
The How and the Why by Sarah Treem; directed by Emily Mann