Search This Blog

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Generation Gap

Treading the Boards Dept.: My review of one of the summer’s offerings from Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass.


IT’S A CONFRONTATION between rival evolutionary biologists; between feminists of different generations with different generational opinions; between a mother and the daughter she gave up for adoption three decades ago.

Bridget Saracino and Tod Randolph.
Photo by John Dolan
The conflicts cross, of course, from one category to the next, in messy, all-too-human ways. Sarah Treem’s script is a clever one, and it comes from a playwright who has achieved considerable success in television. Unlike most TV programming, live theater offers the chance to let gray areas remain grayish and to leave the audience asking questions. But The How and the Why doesn’t effectively avail itself of those possibilities.

We get to know two complicated characters during the course of the show, their personalities and conflicts made all the more convincing by two terrific performances.

Tod Randolph, who was brilliant as Sonia in last season’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, plays Zelda, whose celebrated “Grandmother Hypothesis” brought her notoriety and a tenured teaching position. She also has evolved an almost-unflappable exterior, betrayed only by the frequent fixing of her hair.

Rachel is 28, the same age at which Zelda achieved her fame, and she, too, has a potentially controversial theory to offer. Bridget Saracino (left, making her company debut) captures the right note of acerbic eagerness, but she’s ultimately let down by the limits written into the character. Rachel is never allowed to experience the kind of growth that her conversations with Zelda ought to provoke: She remains petulant, breaking that facade only with tears or a panic attack.

The biggest laugh of the evening is unearned, coming when Rachel breaks character to speak in what’s obviously the playwright’s voice in a tirade about semen and pathogens. And that’s emblematic of the major problem in this script: that characters take a back seat to the agenda, which itself isn’t all that clear.

There’s a style of feminism now viewed as something vintage (and termed “second-wave”), a relic of the time when The Feminine Mystique was published and inspired a more confrontational approach to the issues. “Third-wave” feminism, a rebellion against the perceived failures of its predecessor movement, has diffused and fragmented its mission to the point where it’s hard to discern. Using this perspective, Rachel’s stunning self-absorption nicely embodies what’s wrong with the movement: She’s unable to treat Zelda’s good advice with anything but hostility, and the suspicions she harbors of Zelda’s motives—suspicions that would be fascinating if borne out—prove unwarranted.

But the science in the play is fascinating, all the more so for being based on research by biologist Margie Profet and anthropologist Kristen Hawkins. Not only are the details of the individual theories fascinating of themselves, they’re also placed in confrontation with each other in an intelligent dialectic that’s usually denied us outside of academe. And these ideas carry compelling political weight, reminding us that the study of women has been as victimized by sexism as anything else to do with the Second Sex.

Ultimately, Treem gives up and throws Zelda a second-act curveball that comes straight out of the dramatist’s manipulative bag of tricks. It’s too bad. The first act is so engaging, so full of promise, that the remainder of the show stumbles in comparison. But the performances are captivating and director Nicole Ricciardi has made the most of what’s available, giving life to these fractious, fragmented characters and playing out their conflicts both emotionally and, as they move around the stage, in an effective physical manner.

The How and the Why
By Sarah Treem, directed by Nicole Ricciardi
Shakespeare & Company, through July 26

Metroland Magazine, 11 June 2015

No comments: