‘How and the Why’: timely, and dry

CoHo's newest frankly contemplates sexual politics and where we all came from. Hint: It begins with a V.

The How and the Why,  a prolonged and mildly dramatic mother/daughter dialogue about the science of menstruation and menopause, is pretty undeniably a women’s play—and if for even a second that made you think, “How limited,” check yourself. Women are actually the broadest possible audience! Most people are women.

A play that probes how women work in every sense—in the workplace, in communication with each other, in the context of family dynamics and romantic relationships—is perennially relevant. But a play about how women work physically, reproductively—is particularly timely. Though it would be glib to say “vaginas are having a political moment,” the kind of political moment vaginas are currently having is a doozy. As besieged by outside interests as Standing Rock, vaginas have inspired a potent new strain of humorous commentary. The “Pussy grabs back!” voter slogan compares the vagina to a cornered creature, fighting back rabidly after Donald Trump has grabbed it without asking. Russian provocateurs Pussy Riot, meanwhile, have declared vaginal territory a homeland worth defending. In their NSFW new single, Straight Outta Vagina, they shout, “Don’t play stupid, don’t play dumb, Vagina’s where you’re really from!”

Karen Trumbo and Gwendolyn Duffy: no holds barred. Photo: Owen Carey

Karen Trumbo and Gwendolyn Duffy: no holds barred. Photo: Owen Carey

But in contrast to prevailing vaginal consciousness, Sarah Treem’s play isn’t leaning on humor or bombast. It’s milder, subtler, and more demanding of its audience. It’s inquisitive, at times pedantic, and deeply concerned. Expect to eavesdrop, consider and learn, but don’t expect any comic relief.

Zelda Kahn (played by Karen Trumbo) is a lauded evolutionary biologist, fully established in academia with an elegant mahogany-furnished office and a seat on the board of an elite annual conference. Rachel Hardeman (Gwendolyn Duffy) pays her an extremely awkward visit, during which we learn pretty quickly that Rachel is also an evolutionary biologist, as well as Zelda’s biological daughter. What are the odds?

The play is entirely comprised of these two characters’ two conversations—more specifically, of exposition, making the title the truest sort of advertising. What inspired Rachel to contact her birth mother? And why now? And who is her real father? And what is her groundbreaking theory about menstruation? And how does that theory gibe with her mother’s theory of menopause? To give away any of these would spoil surprises.

But one more question looms large: Why are we listening to these two? It has to be because the science of the female body is fascinating. Unfortunately, it can’t be because the characters are particularly sympathetic or witty. They’re not written that way. Rachel is sharp, cutting her mother off mid-thought and threatening to leave from the moment she arrives. Zelda is measured in her reactions, pacing the room and sizing up her…opponent? Should they be warmer? Not necessarily. These are women of science from whom more sentiment would seem maudlin—and to expect warmth from them would be to wield the exact kind of sexism that STEM women suffer daily. What’s missing then? What do the most engaging characters of any gender have in lieu of sweetness? Humor. Ha! Humor.

Playwright Sarah Treem wrote and produced Showtime’s The Affair. She also writes for House of Cards. So obviously, drama is her strong suit. Cards characters Claire and Frank Underwood are ruthless and regal, with Frank delivering a few dry flourishes of double meaning, but they’re hardly ever funny. They can’t be. The stakes in their story are too high. Not to be demeaning, but Zelda and Rachel’s world—that of academia and research and biology—is smaller. Their choices shape their own lives and their field, but no one else will immediately live or die upon their decisions, meaning it wouldn’t kill them to joke around a little. Womb-humor is pregnant with possibilities—not merely for the vaginal equivalent of fart jokes, but even for complex metaphors or dual meanings. And yet, Treem’s dialogue practically veers to evade any laughs. (By the way, I’d feel the same if a play featured a father and son very dryly discussing sperm and penises…but somehow I find that scenario unimaginable.)

That said, CoHo’s creative choices are sound. Directed by the meticulous Philip Cuomo, the actors find all the subtle tones the script suggests. Karen Trumbo as Zelda puts a wry twist in her smile and pauses powerfully, showing us that she’s often thinking more than she’s saying. Gwendolyn Duffy as Rachel also fully inhabits her role, from the twitches of anxiety to the plucky defensiveness of a young academic. The pair also cultivates a chemistry together that helps sell their far-fetched connection. All things considered, The How and The Why offers plenty of educational and narrative nutrition and some surprising answers—not just for the prevailing population of vagina-havers, but for anyone willing to frankly contemplate where we’re really from. Hint: It begins with a V.

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CoHo’s The How and the Why continues through November 19. Ticket and schedule information here.

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