For all of its scientific erudition and smart feminist perspective, Sarah Treem’s new “The How and the Why” boils down to a prickly mother-daughter drama that runs surprisingly sappy towards its finish. An overlay of theoretical chitchat regarding the evolutionary hows and whys of menstruation either will impress or weary viewers of this two-character talkfest which receives a typically handsome premiere from McCarter Theatre.
A brilliant young biologist, Rachel (Bess Rous) gingerly meets her newly discovered birth mom Zelda (Mercedes Ruehl), coincidentally a prize-winning authority in the same field. Their encounter in Zelda’s Ivy League office is uneasy but they prove to be alike in many ways.
The dour grad student turns out to be a rather distrustful soul but clicks with an eager, conciliatory Zelda whenever they gab on topics like the “Grandmother Hypothesis” of reproduction and Rachel’s radical theory that menstruation is a defense against the toxicity of sperm.
Following such upscale discourse, it’s disappointing that the second act winds up several weeks later in a scruffy Boston tavern and dwindles down to questions like “Who’s my father?” and oh-please dramatics like a disclosure of serious illness. A resulting panic attack verges upon cliché, but director Emily Mann’s sharp staging reinforces the play’s mother-daughter essentials.
Ruehl’s warm, dry presence handily soaks up the work’s soggier aspects while Rous looks mighty grim as the frequently baleful Rachel. Two lived-in interiors by Daniel Ostling provide visual contrasts for a static play that talks big but delivers nothing fresh.