Monday, December 17, 2012

The How and the Why, but not the What or the Wherefore

Anne Scurria and Barrie Kreinik discuss the how and the why down at Trinity. Photo: Mark Turek

First the good news: in scientific terms, The How and the Why, at Trinity Rep through December 30, is the best "science play" I've ever seen.  Usually this genre, despite its best intentions, actually soft-pedals its science, dumbs down its debates, and slides in woozy "Evolution for Dummies" or "Tao of Physics" asides. It woos the dimmer bulbs from the humanities with the tease that because of quantum mechanics, we can't really know what happened in the past.  Or - in the most dreaded sub-type of the genre, the Lady Scientist Play - it conjures dreams or hallucinations, or even wrinkles in time, which bring lady explorers back from the great beyond in pith helmets, or gripping test tubes - stuff like that, you know the drill.

But God bless her, playwright Sarah Treem is having none of it.  Her lady scientists scorn pith helmets, and they aren't prone to fits of anxiety over their ability - or will power.  And they talk, unapologetically, in terms of hard-nosed hypotheses.  They debate.  They argue.  Even more exciting - they make scientific sense!  Your professor in Comp Lit may not be able to follow their conversations, but I think you will, because Treem has done her homework, and smartly stitched together - from the real-life theses of several leading female researchers - a viable, up-to-the-minute debate on puzzling questions of evolutionary biology.  The dialectic unfolds before us just as (well pretty much as) real research might, with surprises and disappointments to go with the flashes of insight.  If you're looking for the drama of science, look no further.  Treem nails it.

What's more, she also accurately treats the lingering question of sexism in science.  Yes, it's still there - I work in science now, and I recognize most of the dilemmas and situations the playwright conjures here.  The game may no longer be rigged against women - but they have their resentful enemies all the same.  (They always will.) And the questions that Treem ponders - Why do women menstruate? Why do they go through menopause? - are precisely those issues that play into the gender wars, and make immature men (and there are a lot of those in science) squeamish and defensive.

So far, so good.  But when it comes to the human drama of The How and the Why - well, I'm afraid here Treem comes up short.  And for reasons that are ironic, and a little sad - for it turns out the very political perspective that seems to have inspired her play has also undone it to some degree.  Indeed, Treem's political feelings seem to have cut her off from the emotional heart of her drama.  To be blunt, feminism has both inspired her to write a great play, and also prevented her from writing it.

I know - ouch.  But let me explain.  Treem has instinctively given her two protagonists primal, and related, roles: one is a mother, the other a daughter: in fact they are mother and daughter.  Only Mom gave her baby up for adoption years ago, so we are watching an awkward re-union, in which aspiring scientist Rachel (Barrie Kreinik) shows up on the doorstep of successful researcher Zelda (Anne Scurria) to ask her advice on her groundbreaking theory of menses - even as  she is riven by the knowledge that scientific ambition is precisely what made her mother abandon her all those years ago (and Mom makes no bones about it).

Yes, it's quite a set-up.  Maternal abandonment is one of the great dramatic themes, and here it tees up an ingenious dramatic conflict. But Treem won't actually go near that conflict dramatically - because, we slowly realize, if  Rachel accuses Zelda of abandonment, the playwright fears the primal emotions unleashed might upset her play's feminist applecart.  The buried conflict between these two women thus haunts their every exchange, but never finds its voice.  And since the characters' respective griefs can never be aired, there can be no real healing between them, or even any resolution to their relationship.

True, the playwright does hint at the emotional bottom line here and there (in the second act, poor Rachel gets abandoned again) but then backtracks, and papers over the emotional void with various distractions - a boyfriend who may or not have contributed to Rachel's thesis, or the men who undercut Zelda's career, or what have you.  The play ends up a smart survey of possible variations on sexist themes - or, viewed another way, a static series of distractions and dead ends, studded with breakdowns and panic attacks that seem to have no real object.

Which is really too bad, because feminism does need to thrash this stuff out.  Somehow I think the movement can survive one play - indeed, it might be strengthened for airing these issues onstage. And what kind of playwright sets up a dramatic situation but then refuses to actually dramatize it?  Not a very brave one, I'm afraid I have to say.

And of course the two talented actresses down at Trinity are left hamstrung by all this.  Barrie Kreinik bares the brunt of it as Rachel, who comes off as whiny and unlikable because her own genuine pain never surfaces; Anne Scurria has the more playable part, but I kind of winced when the playwright gave poor Zelda a battle with cancer to whip up some cheap last-act sentiment for her; wouldn't the anguished perception of the loss of her daughter's love have been enough?

On the other hand, there is all that sophisticated scientific debate to enjoy - and Shana Gozansky's direction generally did a good job of dodging the gaps in the script.  But Tilly Grimes' sets had a strange edge; she seemed to want to impress us with the coldness of Zelda's office, but it didn't look like the cave of any successful academic I've ever seen, and it certainly didn't limn her obvious humanist side (fittingly, she's a fan of Edna St. Vincent Millay).  The set for the bar in which the two women meet in the second act was even more bizarre: a vast void populated by two lonely stools and a table.  Was this a comment on the vacuum at the core of the play?  Or a nod toward the loneliness of the two protagonists?  I wasn't entirely sure, and I wasn't sure the sets actually worked as metaphors; but I did get the impression that the designer understood a few things about this play that maybe the playwright didn't.


  1. I disagree with your position that the play's problems result from political correctness. The play's problems result from a structural issue: there's no conflict.

    Rachel tells Zelda her new theory on menstruation. Zelda thinks it's wonderful. As scientists, the women aren't at odds at all. Their theories are not incompatible either.

    So Treem has to fall back on a much more conventional and contrived set of reasons for them to fight--Zelda's abandonment of Rachel, Rachel's desire to put her boyfriend's byline on the abstract, the poor reception of Rachel's theory at the scientific conference. None of these make for much heat or tension which is why Treem goes from one to the next in the hope that the audience will find something to latch on to. And unfortunately, nothing really sticks.

    This seems like a science play, but it's not really. Zelda and Rachel could be real estate agents and the play would play out exactly as it does. The real hard work would have been to make Zelda and Rachel at odds over an idea or scientific theory. Then you'd have a play that was really about science.

    But Americans have never been good at idea plays. That's more the provenance of the British.

    All this said, I enjoyed the play and found it very compelling. Also, Treem was in her mid-20s when she wrote this. It's not going to take her very long to get it right, in which case she may prove a major talent.

  2. Well, I'm not going to argue with your point that the play might have been more compelling with more scientific conflict going on between the leads. That's probably true. But I could tell (from various details) that the playwright had chosen a different strategy - and actually, Zelda and Rachel's theories WERE in conflict at points; so Treem hadn't simply dropped the ball.

    When it comes to the emotional subtext of the play, however, it's equally clear that she had no strategy, and simply blew it. The back story of the two characters (long-lost daughter and the mother who gave her up!) was so fraught that it begged explanation if it wasn't there to fuel a basic conflict. Likewise the scientific theories themselves ("the grandmother hypothesis," etc.) seemed all but designed to echo an emotional context that was simply missing. Zelda's "abandonment" of Rachel during her lecture likewise was clearly meant to echo her earlier, more devastating abandonment - yet this plot point went no where.

    True, you could argue that Treem's emotional structure lacked all focus and led nowhere for reasons other than feminism and political correctness. But what could those reasons be? I'm open to suggestions.