By Ed Malin
Jonathan Leaf’s new play Deconstruction is a refreshing and contemporary take on love and philosophy circa 1949. The three brainiac characters in this story are Belgian–born philosopher Paul De Man, American novelist and critic Mary McCarthy and German-Jewish scholar Hannah Arendt, who was a pupil of existentialist Martin Heidegger. The three interact in New York, where the women’s careers were already established and De Man, newly arrived from Europe, was working at a bookstore. Several fictional accounts (such as “The Perjurer” by Henri Thomas) have painted a very negative picture of De Man. This intriguing, nuanced play brings out the flaws in all of the characters. Deconstruction is directed by Peter Dobbins, head of The Storm Theatre Company, which has presented many important French theater works and begins its 20th season with this piece.
The play is named for the philosophy which emerged from the work by Paul De Man, Jacques Derrida and others following structuralism, existentialism and other -isms current in the mid-20th century. However, no matter how much of the spotlight (and other things) he may have stolen, the story is not all about De Man. The intriguing part of this play is the possibility that Paul De Man seduced Mary McCarthy, and that she was not happy in her third marriage and was willing to conceive an aesthetically pleasing child and run off with him. When you postulate a love story between those people, you strengthen the menace of De Man’s many other lies while asking why many believed him. So much of Paul De Man’s character was called into question when, after his death in 1983, articles he wrote for Nazi collaborationist publications in occupied Belgium came to light. But it is striking to see what seductive use of selective “alternative facts” can achieve: several broken marriages, a miscarriage, and callous use of McCarthy’s academic influence to gain a teaching position at Bard College. De Man, whose studies had been interrupted by World War II, thanks to McCarthy was able to befriend many American intellectuals and as a result obtained his PhD from Harvard.
The story starts at Mary McCarthy’s home, where the handsome Paul (Jed Peterson) explains in his Belgian accent how he would love to make a contribution to literature and philosophy. Following his Resistance activities and sheltering of Jewish friends during World War II, he fled Belgium due to a misunderstanding about some missing money in one of his business ventures (you know, it could have been anyone who embezzled it) and, though he has the equivalent of a Master’s degree but lacks teaching experience, he would love to move on from his translations of the works of Herman Melville to tackle serious philosophical issues.
Mary (Fleur Alys Dobbins), known for her unfiltered novels but wary of men treating her as “easy”, is nevertheless drawn to Paul. Both of them had lost their parents in tragic ways. At seventeen, Paul discovered the hanged body of his mother. (It is important to note that this is a fact, and that a lot of Paul’s other claims, though charming, were false.) The two marvel at a quote from Othello, a classic story of deception, and then they kiss. Paul has a wife and three children in Argentina; they are on course to separate. As Paul and Mary get to know each other better, Mary’s current husband lets Paul join them in Rhode Island for a vacation. Paul meets Mary’s friend, the great Hannah Arendt. Hannah (Karoline Fischer) is serious about her philosophy and, while she tells only Mary about her secret love affair with Heidegger, she has a great need to investigate and find the truth. The three discuss whether existentialism is really all about the individual, but avoid a war by dropping the subject.
This is definitely a new take on the relationship of these notable people. Although it is not clear why Mary helped Paul become an academic and their relationship was indeed frustrated by Paul’s need to marry his pregnant student, it is still not known whether Paul and Mary were lovers. However, this secret and the knowledge displayed about Paul’s Nazi past (only publicized after Paul’s death, and minimalized by many authors) provide interesting motives for Mary and Paul. Hannah, the coolest of the three and a lifelong friend of Mary, thenceforth an enemy of Paul, doesn’t seem to have a reason to keep her discoveries secret. Most important for me is the pernicious idea that one can erase inconvenient facts by philosophizing about the nature of reality. The play doesn’t go into De Man’s later work, which is certainly an extension of his actions on the stage of the Grand Hall at St. Mary’s Parish (an open, book-filled set, designed by Shannon Kavanagh). Today’s political upheavals in the USA and the potential populist uprisings in France and the Netherlands are fueled by emotional appeals rather than facts. Yet, any idiot (especially a D.J.T.) can hide his bad choices by turning the conversation into an inquiry about his interrogators. Is it possible that most people have exaggerated their wealth or childhood traumas to lure a romantic partner, or have lied about their job experience or something else that is difficult to trace? This play left me with the feeling that such is our world. My personal inclination is to continue to fight for justice and scientifically provable benefits (see: climate change). The dilemma of this play is nicely developed by the director and the fine cast. Jeannipher Pacheco’s 1949 costumes feel light, casual and very American. Michael Abrams’s sultry lighting helps a lot to bring us into the not so black and white world of these characters.