CAMBRIDGE — Science majors, have I got a play for you.
For the rest of us, especially the English majors, Sarah Treem’s cerebral drama at Central Square Theater can be heavy sledding.
When two evolutionary biologists toss around references to microphages, “pathogen-fighting immune cells,’’ and “plasma levels of lactoferrin,’’ you may find yourself adding a silent “What?’’ to “The How and the Why.’’
But under the direction of Daniel Gidron, the Nora Theatre Company production ultimately solidifies into a well-drawn and satisfyingly intense clash of ideas and personalities.
THE HOW AND THE WHY
The Boston-born Treem, an award-winning writer for HBO’s “In Treatment,’’ has said that dramatic tension results if a playwright puts “people in a room who have very good reasons to be furious at each other and you don’t let them leave.’’
It takes a revelation or two, and they are a while in coming, before we understand the reasons for the uneasiness between Rachel Hardeman, a New York University graduate student played by Samantha Richert, and renowned Harvard professor Zelda Kahn, portrayed by Debra Wise.
Rachel wears an aggrieved expression from the moment she enters Zelda’s carpeted Cambridge office and silently makes her way, without greeting or a word of warning, to the edge of the professor’s desk.
Eric Levenson’s set creates the atmosphere of a forbidding scholar at work: towering bookcases, strategically arranged diplomas. Unfortunately, and puzzlingly, when Rachel takes a seat in front of Zelda’s desk, Gidron positions her with her back to half the audience. It’s frustrating not to see Rachel’s expressions during some of those initial exchanges with Zelda. There’s another problem with Rachel, too, though this one is in Treem’s script: She’s a 28-year-old woman who too often comes off as a surly, petulant adolescent.
Nonetheless, “The How and the Why’’ steadily draws us in as we see an intellectual, generational, and very personal showdown between the two women take shape. Each is trying to solve the puzzle of the other without yielding too much ground or giving too much away. It’s intriguing to watch, and to listen to, this brand of unapologetically high-IQ theater.
On the late autumn day when Rachel arrives at the office, just before a national conference of research biologists, she tells Zelda that she has developed a theory about female physiology revolving around the notion that menstruation is a defense system against “the toxicity of sperm.’’
Despite the aforementioned limitation to her character as written, Richert, an alumna of Brandeis University’s graduate acting program, does a fine job in capturing Rachel’s mixture of fierce pride, vaulting ambition, and vulnerability. We believe that Rachel believes it — and we also sense how much she needs to believe it — when she says that her new theory is “going to change everything. … The way that women think about their bodies. The way that men think about women’s bodies. The way that people have sex.’’
Perhaps not so incidentally, it might also change the way people think about the groundbreaking research that helped make Zelda’s reputation. Yet Zelda does not seem threatened by the younger scholar. Indeed, she praises Rachel’s theory as “a bit revolutionary,’’ and offers to use her clout to land Rachel a speaking slot at the conference to present it.
As the action shifts to a dingy bar in Boston, we learn how Rachel’s research was received. Personal details emerge, and it becomes apparent that Rachel has a big problem with a life choice Zelda made. Along the way, Treem explores the challenges that confront a woman who breaks with orthodoxy in a field dominated by men, and the tensions between the pioneers of feminism and the women who followed them.
Wise delivers a nicely layered performance. Her Zelda has a bemused, enigmatic air; Rachel’s storms often break against her implacable surface. Zelda, who gets many of the best lines, has a biological explanation for almost everything, delivered with sardonic wit. “Basically,” she tells Rachel, “love is the Stockholm syndrome, gussied up.’’