Probably the least horrifying thing to show up on the Internet last week was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator and star Rachel Bloom’s too-hot-for-TV music video “Period Sex.” That 95-second clip is more ribald than anything in The How and the Why, a 2011 play by The Affair creator & showrunner Sarah Treem opening at Theater J next week. But the two share a broad subject.
The How and the Why takes the form of two long conversations between two biologists who have competing theories about the evolutionary origins of menstruation.
“It’s so calorically expensive to shed an endometrial layer every freaking month,” observes the Rachel character, a 28-year-old NYU grad student. The other character is Zelda, a 56-year-old professor at an unnamed-but-c’mon university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Zelda is keenly interested in the new hypothesis Rachel has developed to explain this bodily phenomenon, because it is in direct opposition to her own theory, one that earned Zelda the prestigious Dobzhansky Prize when she was Rachel’s age. Their collegial discussion of Rachel’s presentation of her work at an academic conference strays into more emotionally raw topics: motherhood, careers v. relationships, discrimination against women in the scientific disciplines. It’s rich, riveting stuff. But if you’re looking for something steamy, you’re better off sticking to Showtime.
Still, intellectual obsession can be even more powerful than the carnal kind. And obsession, says Treem, is wherefrom good writing hails.
“We have this joke on my TV show, where more than half my writers are playwrights,” she says, speaking from her car in Los Angeles. “Someone will say, ‘I feel very passionately about that issue. I wrote a whole play about it.’ So now [anytime someone expresses a strong opinion], it’s, ‘Oh, did you write a whole play about it?’”
What moved Treem to write a whole play in this case were two theories she read about in Natalie Angier’s 1999 National Book Award winner Woman: An Intimate Geography. One of them is known as The Grandmother Hypothesis, which speculates that humans’ brains evolved and lifespans increased because their young had other guardians—specifically, postmenopausal women—to care for them while their mothers were pregnant with or nursing their younger siblings. In other species, the female’s life after menopause tends to be shorter.
In real life, it was University of Utah anthropologist Kristen Hawkes who proposed this idea; in Treem’s play, it belongs to Zelda. “After you’ve defended [your theory] to thousands of people, it becomes like an old lover,” Zelda says.
Rachel’s competing idea involves the “toxicity” of sperm. It suggests that menstruation bathes the uterus in immune cell-rich blood instead of just water every month because humans, as Rachel puts it, “fuck all the time—not just in heat. Not just to reproduce.” In the real world, evolutionary biologist Margie Profet is the author of this theory.
The How and the Why, then, is among the small canon of stories that ascribe a specific real-world idea to a fictional character. (Asked for an example of another play that does this, Treem cites Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which touches on the origins of chaos theory and other advanced mathematics. I feel foolish because I love that play and I’d completely forgotten the math part.)
Shirley Serotsky, The How and the Why’s director, reaches for a more mainstream specimen, noting that Tina Fey massaged Rosalind Wiseman’s nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes into her screenplay for Mean Girls. The Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze movie Adaptation is also a sort of riff on Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief and Robert McKee’s screenwriting manual Story.
“The second wave of feminism made us believe and maybe made us hope that there was a version where you could say yes to all the choices and that would work out,” Serotksy says. “And the reality is of course that that doesn’t work out. And so in a world where you can’t live all the lives, which lives do you choose?”
Treem moved up and down the East Coast frequently when she was growing up. She attended high school in North Carolina and went to Yale for college and graduate school. She still thinks of New Haven, Connecticut, as home, though she has lived in Los Angeles for years.
She says she hasn’t seen a production of The How and the Why since the first one at Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre six years ago. It’s more because she’s been busy than because she’s been avoiding them, she says. But she wants her material to have “a life beyond the office,” noting that successful plays can be reinterpreted in perpetuity while screenplays are, with very few exceptions, never again performed once they’re filmed.
“I sometimes feel like the trap of [The How and the Why] for theater people, who are less versed in science and much more experienced talking emotionally, is to reverse the dialogue so that the emotional stuff is easier and the science stuff is harder,” she says. “And that’s really wrong. The play isn’t constructed that way, and it won’t really work that way.”
In the years since she wrote The How and the Why, Treem has premiered only one subsequent play, 2014’s When We Were Young and Unafraid. She’s been busy with her TV show. (Before creating The Affair, she worked as a writer and producer on HBO series In Treatment and the Netflix drama House of Cards.) But of greater relevance to the themes examined in The How and the Why is the fact she has become a mother: She has a 4-year-old son and a 9-month-old daughter.
“I wrote it when I was 27 or 28, very much the Rachel character,” she says. “And now I’m a little closer to the Zelda character.”
As she wrote, she believed that one character would have to win the scientific debate for the piece to reach a climax. Her breakthrough, she says, was the discovery of yet another idea—one I’ll abstain from giving away—that marries the ideas ascribed to Zelda and Rachel.
“You actually do need to know the answer to the question of the play,” Treem says. “You choose a topic that you are sort of obsessed with, something that causes you a tremendous amount of anxiety. And you are personally searching for an answer through the writing of the play.”