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Deconstruction

Watching three real-life characters put through the melodramatic ringer in Jonathan Leaf’s new play has its fascination.

Jed Peterson as Paul de Man and Fleur Alys Dobbins as Mary McCarthy in a scene from “Deconstruction” (Photo credit: Michael Abrams)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Watching three real-life characters put through the melodramatic ringer in Jonathan Leaf’s new play, Deconstruction, has its fascination.  They act like “regular people,” pouring out revelations and recriminations by the barrelful, putting daytime soaps to shame, but they are, in fact, celebrities, although from Leaf’s drama it would be difficult to discern just how important these three figures—Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt and Paul de Man—were in mid-twentieth century American literature and academia.  Even tossing in lively interpretations and arguments about Martin Heidegger—the man, the traitor, the philosopher and a figure of great importance to all three characters—can’t raise Deconstruction out of the hand-wringing sexual imbroglio it is, in the final analysis.

Even though her most famous book, The Group had yet to be written and her famous libel case involving the vicious Lillian Hellman wasn’t even a glint in the writer’s venomous pen, Mary McCarthy had already achieved literary stardom.  Hannah Arendt was a leading European-American historian and philosopher and Paul de Man was soon to be an important literary critic and academic.

As Deconstruction opens it is June 1949.  Mary McCarthy (Fleur Alys Dobbins) has picked up handsome Paul De Man (Jed Peterson) from his menial job at a Manhattan bookstore and invited him up to her Rhode Island farm.  They dance about—physically and verbally—until the mutual seduction is a fait accompli. She is motivated by hormones (and a boring marriage to Bowden Broadwater) and he by wanting an entrée into academia (and wanting to stay away from a failing marriage).

Karoline Fischer as Hannah Arendt and Fleur Alys Dobbins as Mary McCarthy in a scene from “Deconstruction” (Photo credit: Michael Abrams)

Enter a very sour Hannah Arendt (Karoline Fischer) who smells a rat in de Man.  Her instincts prove substantiated in the play as Arendt’s subsequent investigations prove de Man to be a serial philanderer in addition to being a Nazi collaborator during World War II —a fact he somehow never brought up as he bedazzled, seduced and used a bewitched McCarthy.

McCarthy learns her lesson by the penultimate scene, jilted by the heel de Man.  She is left to lick her wounds with the equally shaken Arendt as they share a Thanksgiving dinner in McCarthy’s Greenwich Village apartment, delighting in the glow of their friendship.

The acting isn’t detailed or expansive enough to make Leaf’s words come alive or give the slightest notion of the intelligence of these three.  Ms. Dobbins’ McCarthy is far too girlish.  Yes, the playwright’s point is to show how even an intellectual can be seduced by a good-looking person, but she never boils over.   The closest to anger she achieves is petulance.

Ms. Fisher, for some reason—directorial or personal choice?—spoke her lines as if in a catatonic state.  A terrible, curly black wig doesn’t help matters.  (There are many photos of Arendt in the forties and she never looked like this.)

Jed Peterson as Paul de Man and Karoline Fischer as Hannah Arendt in a scene from “Deconstruction” (Photo credit: Michael Abrams)

Mr. Peterson does well as the oily, snake charmer, de Man, looking particularly well in Jeannipher Pacheco’s period costumes.  Her costumes for Arendt are far too dreary, but those for McCarthy add some color to the proceedings.

Shannon Kavanagh uses the expansive, flexible space of the Church’s Grand Hall to indicate the turmoil all the characters were going through.  Books are strewn all over the period perfect furniture.  This is a terrific performing space with many possibilities.  Michael Abrams’ lighting design helps keep the drama in focus.

Peter Dobbins, the director, keeps the action in small, tight groupings even though the space is generously appointed.  This helps the actors, all talented in their own ways, but needing time to develop in their roles.

Deconstruction (through March 25, 2017)

Storm Theatre Company in association with Christopher Ekstrom Productions

Theatre at Grand Hall (St. Mary’s Parish), 440 Grand Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit http://www.SmartTix.com

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (206 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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