As the title implies, Jonathan Leaf's "Deconstruction" is a play that is going to tear apart the semblances of what's going on on stage. It also happens to be the popular term for the literary-philosophical system co-parented by the plays' antagonist, the Belgian-Flemish academician Paul de Man.
By now you're thinking, "Hmmm, this sounds like some heavy slogging."
Well, yes and no. Leaf, a fellow Edge theater critic, has blessedly never shied away from writing smart plays about smart people, presumably for an audience of smart people. At his best, "The Germans in Paris," he manages to make flesh and blood out of people who come to stand for "isms" like Karl Marx.
That play, however, had a sprawling cast (sprawling for an off-Off-Broadway production, anyway). "Deconstruction" is what is known as a "three-hander," which means there are only three actors on board the entire time.
This often means the playwright has limited the scope of his drama; although "Deconstruction" manages to construct at least two full realized characters, it runs true to form.
The play, which takes place a few years after the war, follows a brief interlude in the tumultuous life of Mary McCarthy.
A novelist of some note, McCarthy managed to bridge the worlds of New York post-war high-faltutin literary society and show biz. Her brother, Method actor Kevin, is well known as the hero of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"; McCarthy herself would achieve renown and buckets of money for her proto-"Valley of the Dolls" novel "The Group," which, instead of starlets, dealt with Vassar graduates who managed to be just as obsessed with their ovulations, tits and stimulable private parts. (It also contained the first depiction of a lesbian as a just-folks gal accepted by her straight pals.)
In "Deconstruction," McCarthy comes across as a bit of an intellectual nympho, who sleeps with guys' brains as much as their bodies. The fact that actor Jed Peterson happens to be handsome and studly implies she's getting a twofer this time around.
Their love affair has already been the subject of at least two novels, and heaven knows how many memoirs. These are, after all, the kind of people who will fuck for a few hours and then spend decades analyzing and writing about it.
There's a third party here, no less a personage than Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish refugee intellectual who would hit her own popular stride of a sort with her dispatches from the sensational trial of Final Solution boss Adolph Eichmann.
Arendt is best known for giving us the concept of the "banality of evil" -- that people just as boring and nice (in the nicest sense) as us could become mass murderers, and that all of us are potentially "good Germans only taking orders."
Here, however, Arendt herself comes across as rather banal. Leaf may have meant her as a Greek chorus of one. But since the actress playing her is saying, as she doesn't project beyond of her own hands, it's rather hard to tell.
In any event, the really juicy stuff about de Man -- that he was, or at least played the part of, a filthy anti-Semite during Belgium's Occupation -- didn't start to become known until years after the action here has taken place. This makes the Act Two unfurling of secrets a bit less like a heady Belgian monkish bear and more like Miller Lite; tastes OK, but not so filling.
I hope Leaf plays with his play, because there's definitely something here. Maybe a little self-deconstructing of his own might workshop this into a meatier meal about three powerhouse thinkers.
"Deconstruction," a production of the very worthy Storm Theatre, runs through March 25 at the Grand Hall of St. Mary's Parish, 440 Grand St on the LES. For tickets or information, call 212-868-4444 or visit Smarttix.com.