Review: "The How and the Why" is Unquestionably Worth Seeing

The How and the Why

Written by Sarah Treem

Directed by Austin Pendleton

Presented by Good Egg at The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture

18 Bleecker Street, Manhattan, NYC

October 20-November 6, 2022

L-R: Karen Leiner and Arielle Goldman in the Good Egg production of The How and the Why, written by Sarah Treem and directed by Austin Pendleton. Photo by Carol Rosegg
The title of Sarah Treem's 2011 play The How and the Why refers to the contention that any biological issue can be understood in terms of both mechanism–how it operates–and function–to what end the operation occurs. These dual perspectives simultaneously map onto the personal and professional lives of the two women on whom the play centers. Under the direction of the acclaimed Austin Pendleton, the new revival of The How and the Why by Good Egg–a theater company that focuses on plays by and about women, with an emphasis on characters fifty and older–presents a magnificent production of this intellectually and emotionally robust work of drama.

Rachel (Arielle Goldman) is in her late 20s. Zelda (Karen Leiner) is in her mid-50s. Both are evolutionary biologists. Zelda is established and tenured, having made her name working on the theory that menopausal women "created humanity" by making possible the extended development of (other people's) children. Rachel is a grad student who has constructed what she believes to be a revolutionary explanation for the "why" of menstruation. We watch Rachel and Zelda meet first, and for the first time, in Zelda's office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and again later on Rachel's turf, a Boston dive bar–both locations delineated with a minimalist set design that keeps the focus on these women and their words (it is also worth noting that male characters outnumber female characters in the play, but they are presented only through the speech of Rachel and Zelda). Personal and evolutionary histories bracingly interweave throughout their conversations, scientific debate echoed by and echoing differing priorities and worldviews. Rachel is, for example, quicker to perceive sexism in their field (she memorably claims that when men call a woman difficult, they mean difficult to have sex with), while Zelda is, for example, quicker to privilege research over emotional ties. Over the course of the play, it gradually becomes clear all that is at stake in these women's encounters, and it is far from merely academic.
L-R: Arielle Goldman and Karen Leiner in the Good Egg production of The How and the Why, written by Sarah Treem and directed by Austin Pendleton. Photo by Carol Rosegg
As the play offers highly individualized portraits of two brilliant, driven women, it also engages with large-scale questions such as nature versus nurture, as well as how gender impacts what scientists decide is worth bothering to study and, as in Zelda's withering critique of Hormone Replacement Therapy, even what is considered biologically normal. Goldman and Leiner play beautifully off of one another, with organic and naturalistic performances, and the production is not afraid to patiently let the occasional pregnant silence between them unfold its full weight. Treem's play draws on actual scientific debates and figures, most notably the controversy-inspiring work of Margaret Profet on menstruation, and its characters too never feel less than real, both in their dialogue and in their vividly realized embodiment. Considering Good Egg's The How and the Why from those dual perspectives, the how is to get down to the Sheen Center, and the why is that this is an impeccable revival.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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