New York City has always been the launch place for successful American plays. Plays by newcomer playwrights launch their life from off-off Broadway and gradually filter to Off Broadway and then the lucky few goes to the Broadway. However, recent trends have shown that many new plays now premiere at Regional Theaters around the country and gradually make their way to the glitz and fame of Broadway if they get noticed. Recently, I had the opportunity of watching the premier of Sarah Treem’s new play “The How and the why” at the McCarter theater in Princeton New Jersey. The play was directed by Emily Mann and performed by Mercedes Ruehl (the Oscar winning actress) and Bess Rous.
Revivals of successful old plays can never match the thrill and spontaneity of a brand new drama. The producer and the director has to take on a huge risk to make the play work. The playwright too, goes through a period of nail biting and hair raising experience as she watches the audience reactions and critical reviews. “The How and the Why” has been quite a challenge and I commend McCarter Theater and Emily Mann for investing in this venture. This was not an easy play. Two women sparring on stage with scientific jargon and long expository speeches is not the kind of play common people would like to watch, unless the playwright has the capability to weave a story that the audience gets hooked on to from the beginning to the end, and unless the play is performed by a cast and crew who knew their craft so well that they can keep the audience mesmerized for the entire duration. Let me get into the details of each of the above aspects I mention.
Sarah Treem, a graduate of Yale School of Drama, is a relatively new playwright although her bio in the playbill says that she has quite a few plays and television dramas to her credit. Sarah has chosen a topic that many of us are not aware of, the evolutionary biology of the human female. Two contending scientific theories, “the grandmother hypothesis” and “menstruation as defense” – each trying to explain the “Why” aspect of female menstruation and menopause, are brought into direct confrontation on stage along with two contending generations of females – both scientists specializing in evolutionary biology. The two women are not only of different generations, but as the play progresses we find that they also have a genetic link as the mother and daughter, who try to discover the “how” and “why” of their life. The interplay between science and life is what makes this play so poignant and different from being a “feminist” play. To justify the science, the playwright had to resort to lot of exposition, but she always resorted to the bare minimum that was required to make the characters and their story believable.
The actors, Mercedes Ruehl and Bess Rous also belong to the two generations as the characters in the play. They too share a common profession as the characters do. Hence they both look extremely natural on stage. Two person plays demand a lot from the actors, and both Ruehl and Rous meet them exceeding all expectations. To watch Mercedes Ruehl on stage is a learning experience for any student of the art. How she uses space and time, how she controls her emotions and delivers her often long speeches with ease is something to be experienced. Bess Rous worked extremely hard to keep up with her veteran co-actor and she did an extremely good job. The confusion, the high strung attitude, and the passionate approach to science that the character possess, was well portrayed by Bess.
Emily Mann and her production team does deserve our thanks for putting this up on Princeton stage. The superb stage design was a treat to watch. The attention to details and the creation of space was very well thought. Although it was not clear why the highly emotional and loud second act took place in a restaurant where there were no other customers and no waiters to attend the tables. For if they were, I am sure the characters could not behave the way the did. Another issue which struck me was the awkward blocking which made the actors expressions hidden from audience view on few occasions which could have been avoided.
I hope McCarter Theater brings more such plays from new playwrights to Princeton stage.