BWW Review: Theater J's Brainy THE HOW AND THE WHY
Let's say you want to think deeply about the origins of menstruation. Perhaps you would go to a lecture on evolutionary biology.
Or, if you add on the emotional weight of women at odds in this same field arguing separate theories, you could attend "The How and the Why" at Theater J.
It's a play from Sarah Treem, who has since earned fame as a writer on "House of Cards" and creator of "The Affair" on TV.
So like those shows (and, maybe more pointedly, "In Treatment") there are sharp and witty rejoinders and a dramatic tension that continues through its two hours. Fleshed out by the performances of Katie deBuys and especially Valerie Leonard, it brings a certain life to what is still at many points a theoretical discussion about the origins of the period.
And yet there's a barrier, since one knows there are just two cast members. When one of them threatens to leave early on we know she won't, since it will be the end of the play. Eventually one longs to see another face somewhere, even if it's only a waiter bringing them popcorn at the bar (No, it's self-service to an offstage counter).
The how and why of the play's arrival at Theater J is almost as interesting as the play itself. Recently installed artistic director Adam Immerwahr helped produce an early reading of Treem's unfinished script at Princeton seven years ago. (It played Northern Virginia's 1st Stage later that year as well). Placing the work on the Theater J schedule for early this year, he says he expected "we would be watching it during the early days of our first female president."
Revising that, he says "the play seems more relevant than ever" in the days since the Women's March.
Neither of those things are brought to bear in the play, though, which largely stays apolitical. Even the larger issue of how younger woman approach feminism differently than an older generation is not as fully developed as one would expect (though it is brought up). There's more talk about the necessity (or lack of it) of men in their lives, the nature of ambition and the ever perplexing decisions about living from the head or the heart. Whatever poetry there is in the dialogue, though, tends to come in quoting Edna St. Vincent Millay.
DeBuys is striking as a brash young woman who is nonetheless insecure about her new theory - that the biological imperative of menses is the "toxicity of sperm."
But Leonard is a stronger presence, possibly because her accomplished academic character is also more secure and wise, even as she flashes hints of sabotaging the theory that is at odds with her own.
Director Shirley Serotsky gets some effective and subtle looks and gestures out of each of the women, even as the pacing of the initial moments of discomfort in their initial meeting spreads as well to the audience.
Set designer Paige Hathaway's clever brick-walled set with high windows and a collage of women pioneers shows that a professor's office in Cambridge can easily double as a Harvard Square bar with the addition of some beer signs and stools (with another great detail: tape on the barstool cushion).
As intellectually stimulating as much of "The How and the Why" can be, a lot of it is colored by the age-old inter-generational emotional baggage. An unintended reflection our new era in government is the amount of theorizing that's free of on-hand evidence.
Hats off to Theater J to present such challenging work, especially coming immediately after a similarly scientific staging of "Copenhagen," about atomic fission. Their audiences' reward comes with the season's next offering: Neil Simon.
Running time: Two hours with one intermission.