Saturday, February 05, 2011


Mercedes Ruehl & Bess Rous

By coincidence, I happened to be in Princeton on the day Milton Babbitt died in his adopted home town there, not to hear music but see theater, The How and the Why, at the McCarter Theater. The play stars Oscar, Tony & Obie winner Mercedes Ruehl & Bess Rous, a younger actress with a variety of TV credits (Mad Men, Law & Order), but a longer, earlier career as a competitive ice dancer. Directed by Emily Mann, the play was written by Sarah Treem, a writer and producer of one of my favorite television series, In Treatment.

Two-person plays are interesting in that they offer us drama pretty much stripped to its most elemental, contesting voices in an author’s head dropped onto those narrativizing contexts we call characters. The great trick is of course to make the characters seem real, plausible to an audience. That’s a much tougher trick than it seems – even a half-hour TV sitcom like Big Bang Theory offers its viewers five regular characters to bounce off one another for 22 minutes. An hour-long show like NCIS gives us an ensemble of eight, spending as much as half of its 45 minutes wading through the back stories and interactions of the group so that you don’t have to spend too terribly long on any one figure. Around these core groups there are almost always additional recurring characters, seeding their imagined worlds with even more points of complexity, often just for the sake of complexity. On Big Bang Theory, one of the scientists lives with his mother, never seen but often heard – she has all the maternal instincts of Mickey Rourke.

What makes In Treatment, an adaptation of the successful Israeli series BeTipul, so interesting is that the therapeutic setting is a perfect social context for precisely this mode of stripped-down drama. As somebody who has been in therapy, off & on, for a quarter of a century, the makers of In Treatment get it right. The series proceeds with several concurrent story lines per season (five for the first two, four for the third), most with solo patients – there was a couple the first season, a divorcing family the second – with the last reserved for the therapist’s own session with his therapist / supervisor. So you have, over the course of a cycle, as many players involved as does Big Bang Theory, but the dramatic setting is (save for the group sessions) almost always one-to-one. Even here you can feel the twitchiness of the producers, as if this were too bare, too stark for them to hold still for. The therapist, Peter Weston, has a family, gets a divorce, moves to Brooklyn, has a session with one client (a ten-year-old boy) in a playground, gets sued, meets his lawyer at her office (only to discover that she’s an old client), etc. But the best sessions, the best episodes, always, have been the one-on-ones. Mia Wasikowska, before she was Alice-in-Wonderland, before she was Jane Eyre, showed that she could handle the unrelenting focus of going up against Gabriel Byrne and hold her own. Alison Pill is another actress whose work on that series stands out, even more than her portrayal of Anne Kronenberg in Milk.

In The How and the Why, Treem takes this same stripped-down format & it gives it a completely different context, a university not unlike Princeton, and a confrontation between a senior faculty member, evolutionary biologist Zelda Kahn, and Columbia grad student Rachel Hardeman, in town to meet this eminence whose work she is challenging in her own research. There are two acts, one in Kahn’s office on campus prior to a major conference, the second at a student bar a couple of weeks later after Hardeman has suffered a couple of devastating losses. The repartee between the two scientists, much of it centered around the scientific issues posed by menstruation and menopause, is fast-paced, smart & often just plain theoretical. If you like smart in your theater, this play is a total pleasure. That it’s willing to give us that with only women on stage, and a decidedly femme focus to the theoretical issues, is of course the play’s social twist. At one level the narrative’s thrust is that we know the how of menstruation & menopause – and the evolutionary embarrassing scientific question of why do women live beyond their childbearing years – but what is up for grabs is the why of it. A quick peek at Wikipedia entry for the grandmother hypothesis demonstrates that it is every bit as controversial (and derided) as the characters complain in the play.

But really what makes this play work is that both actresses are completely up for playing brilliant characters onstage. That isn’t as easy as it might look, as innumerable performances on screen over the years have shown – Cher as a lawyer, or the nonsense of Numb3rs, Robert Downey, Jr. & Jude Law as Holmes & Watson, Harrison Ford as an archaeologist, Nicholas Cage in anything beyond Raising Arizona or Leaving Los Vegas. Even when the actor or actress is smart – Cher would be a good example (her performances in Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean & Silkwood show her at her best as one of the finer actresses of the past half century) – playing somebody with a specialist’s depth of knowledge, and a specialist’s passion is not easy.

The first time I ever paid attention to Mercedes Ruehl was in the promotional run-up to The Fisher King in 1991, for which she won an Oscar. What attracted her to the role, she said in an interview at the time, was not director Terry Gilliam or the chance to work with Robin Williams, but her love for that section of The Waste Land. That any actor even recognized that allusion was what struck me then. This was not one of those narcissistic airheads that European directors used to deride as “cows,” useful only for distributing around a landscape.

Ruehl shows it here too. She has the more difficult of the two roles, in that she has to play off the white-hot anger & resentment that radiates off Bess Rous’ Hardeman. She manages the much wider register of emotions all with ease, and it’s a generous performance. She and Rous make the theoretical discussion come across as though discussing theory were as natural as the weather.

The How and The Why has gotten a number of good reviews, but I’ve been more intrigued at some of the more mixed or negative ones, not all of which have been written by men. The two complaints that turn up is that some of the coincidences in the narrative seem “fairly contrived,” which is one of those totally bogus complaints in a world in which, say, Shakespeare existed. The other is that Rous’ character comes across as too angry.

As somebody whose relationship to my father is not dissimilar to the one Rous' character has with her birth mother, I totally buy Rous’ attitude. I think my younger brother, whose situation even more closely fits the parallel, would be an even closer match. Anything less from Rous would have rung huge alarms of theatrical disbelief from me. Rous is, in fact, the reason to come see this play. Some of that may be Ruehl’s conscious generosity at work, but Rous here is a revelation. I don’t know how she managed to be doing something different for 15 years as an ice dancer, because she’s tremendous on stage.

What I pick up on from these more hesitant reviews – you can find them online easily enough, but I’m not going to add to their links here – is not just a discomfort with women talking theory, tho it is that, at one level, pure and simple. The other is that both characters here are people we would think of as high maintenance, prickly personalities, difficult women. It is really rare to see such people portrayed in theater at all, except as comedy. The How and the Why takes them completely seriously and expects you to do likewise. Why the hell not?

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