Review: ‘The How and the Why’ at Theater J

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The How and the Why – Sarah Treem’s celebrated play about science, feminism and generational rivalry – has just made its long-awaited DC debut at Theater J.

The two-handed play is billed as a “fitting follow-up” to Theater J’s recent production of Copenhagen, in which two real-life male scientists – Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg – conduct an imaginary debate about the morality of turning atomic fission into a bomb.

Valerie Leonard and Katie deBuys in The How and the Why. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In The How and the Why, we have two female scientists. On top, and lording it over her domain, is the powerful Zelda Kahn, played by Valerie Leonard, whose theory of evolutionary biology has become establishment doctrine.

On the bottom, and beseeching some kind of favor, is the upstart Rachel Hardman. Played by Katie deBuys with alternating waves of bravado and fear, she is a graduate student whose new theory – developed with her boyfriend – threatens to overthrow existing ideas.

While the characters are fictional, the science is real. In fact, the new theory, which sounds naïve, is actually based on the work of a real scientist, Margie Profet, who in 1993 shocked the world with an idea that studies have since confirmed.

The play begins when the two women meet in the professor’s office just a few days before a major international conference. Rachel wants to speak at the conference. Zelda at first refuses, then, improbably, offers the opportunity, provided that Rachel will deliver the talk alone. They argue, conducting a verbal duel that covers everything from the morality of ambition to the underpinnings of sexism. They also debate the importance of love and marriage versus career.

There are also some not-so-subtle hints of an earlier relationship. Is this a May-December love affair gone sour? A bond between mentor and acolyte, broken by an overly competitive student? A generational divide that has somehow turned personal?? In fact, it’s none of the above.

Since the playwright is Sarah Treem—the highly-acclaimed TV writer whose hit shows include House of Cards, In Treatment and The Affair—the jousting is glib, full of laugh-aloud jokes.

These two ladies are very smart. And they are smartly directed by Shirley Serotsky, an award-winning pillar of the DC theatre community who understands how to work in depth.

In fact, Adam Immerwahr, Theater J’s new Artistic Director, chose the play, in part, because it was a perfect fit for Shirley. “Her interest in feminism and focus on illuminating subtext make her ideal for this play,” he says, adding that it was also a perfect fit for his first year at Theater J.

Immerwahr, who came across the play when he was Associate Artistic Director at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ—where it had its world premiere in 2011—says he was captivated by it at the time, and knew that he wanted to produce it again.

Valerie Leonard and Katie deBuys in The How and the Why. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

This production owes much of its strength to its two actors. Although the character of Zelda is more fully developed—she is, seemingly, the stronger of the two, and her part is meatier—the character of Rachel allows for a broader range.

Paige Hathaway’s set is ingenious. The backdrop – covered with photographs of the professor’s subjects and snatches of pre-feminist poetry – is juxtaposed against a façade of 19th century brick buildings, each with its own mullioned windows.

A movable interior wall creates the illusion, on one side, of a cozy Harvard office, complete with window seat and books. Turned around, the other side becomes a student bar where the only food is stale popcorn.

In addition to the popcorn – which triggers laughter even before the first taste – Kevin Laughon’s props include a bottle of lukewarm champagne served in a coffee mug and a water glass.

Danielle Preston’s costumes and accessories—especially the handbags that both tote around, provide instant clues to the women’s roles. The dominant and self-assured Zelda is clearly the Alpha Female, dressed impeccably in a designer jacket and loose but graceful trousers. Rachel, on the other hand, is the cocky post-grad outfitted in tights and layered top.

The contrasting worlds of professorial eminence and student decadence are clearly delineated by the lighting, designed by Martha Mountain, and sound, by Justin Schmitz.

Although the play is a logical counterpoint to Copenhagen, it bears an even greater resemblance to The Hard Problem, the Tom Stoppard play that was recently staged at Studio.

That play, too, depicts a “how and a why,” though the question there is whether science and spirituality can coexist. Both plays deal with serious topics, and both are cleverly written, though contrived. Both deal with events that strain credibility.

If The How and the Why occasionally feels like soap opera, at least it is soap opera laced with Pinteresque dialogue. Or it’s a Neil Simon comedy with zingers intact, but a big question mark behind the scenery.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

The How and the Why plays through March 12, 2017, at Theater J at The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

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