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Interview: Playwright Jonathan Leaf Discusses His New Play ‘Deconstruction,’ Playing at The Storm Theatre Company in NYC March 3-25th

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Full disclosure – I’ve known Jonathan Leaf for a long time. We hung out in New York City in the early 2000’s when he was a budding playwright and I was finishing up grad school. Since then, Jonathan has gone on to carve out a nice little niche for himself as a playwright, journalist, and critic. His writing has appeared in The Weekly Standard, The New York Post, The New York Daily News and The National Review, among others. He is currently a contributing film critic for Forbes. Critic James Wood has called Jonathan a “slouching, rather intense, sort of hero from Dostoevsky.”

Several of Jonathan’s plays have been produced in New York off-Broadway theaters and elsewhere. His play The Caterers was nominated for an Innovative Theater Award for best full-length original script in 2006 and his 2007 play The Germans in Paris was praised by The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, among others. Time Out New York magazine has compared him to Saul Bellow due to his “literacy and seriousness.”

I was excited to hear that Jonathan’s latest play, Deconstruction, would have its world premiere with The Storm Theatre Company in New York. According to Storm Theatre’s website, Deconstruction is a historically inspired play that “imagines the rumored love affair between famous novelist Mary McCarthy and young aspiring academic Paul de Man.” The play was developed at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit (PDU) where Jonathan is a member.

Nicole: Can you start out by setting the context of the play for us?

Playwright Jonathan Leaf. Photo by Christina Freyss.

Jonathan: Sure. Deconstruction is a three-character play about the youthful intersection of the gifted and beautiful novelist Mary McCarthy, the deconstructionist academic Paul de Man and McCarthy’s best friend, philosopher Hannah Arendt. The play is short – only about eighty minutes – fast-paced and takes place over just a few months, but during its course audiences will witness an intense drama of love and ideas.

What attracted you to this subject matter?

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about Mary McCarthy for The Weekly Standard. I heard that she had been romantically involved with Paul de Man and I was really fascinated by the idea. I thought it might be an interesting subject for a play. I love plays of ideas, and I thought this would be an opportunity to write a play of ideas with three really compelling characters because Mary McCarthy was an extraordinary character and an avid intellectual and by all accounts, de Man was a very charismatic guy.

I think Mary McCarthy is a very underrated writer and obviously a fascinating person. But all three characters are highly unusual and fascinating people. It’s noteworthy in that McCarthy had a tragic childhood, which is something she shared with Paul de Man. Hannah Arendt’s life was also touched by tragedy through the Holocaust so they all have had these terrible tragedies in their lives.

Deconstruction postulates that Mary McCarthy and Paul de Man had a romantic relationship when they met in New York in 1949. Is this conjecture on your part or a known event?

Overall, Deconstruction is a work of the imagination. But there was a recent biography – The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish – that argued that they had a romantic relationship, and I think the case is pretty convincing. We know that McCarthy had a number of affairs during her first three marriages. I mean, she acknowledged this, and we also know that she went out of her way to find de Man a teaching job. We know that she visited de Man on a couple of occasions without her husband and we know that she got pregnant and lost a child, and that later she had all this anger towards de Man. So, there are a number of things that suggest that they had a relationship and that he may have gotten her pregnant.

And didn’t de Man then marry a student of his whom he met through Mary McCarthy?

He married a student whom he met as a result of the job that Mary McCarthy got him. And then he got that woman pregnant! He seems to have been pretty busy!

Paul de Man seems to have been quite the lothario. Do you think he is going to come across as a sympathetic character?

You know, I tried to show his point of view. His reputation now is basically that of a scoundrel. I’m talking about in the popular imagination. We know he was a Nazi collaborationist, he may have been an embezzler, and there is a widespread if not entirely accurate perception that he was a bigamist. But we try to show that he went through some horrible, horrible experiences going back to childhood and from his point of view, I think he felt he was doing the things he had to do.

As a playwright, you definitely want to present the character’s point of view fairly so the audience will leave the play understanding the argument you were trying to make.

Who is the main protagonist of the show?

You could argue that it is McCarthy and de Man together, but I think that the main character that the audience will have particular sympathy for is Mary McCarthy.

The third character is Hannah Arendt who was McCarthy’s best friend, not so much at the time the play was set, but later in her life.

Why include Arendt in the play?

There is an interesting connection between these three people in that Arendt was having an affair with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and de Man’s philosophy is based on Heidegger’s ideas, so in terms of writing a play of ideas, it makes for an ideal connection.

All three of these characters were pretty heady intellectuals. What are the larger ideas you address in the play?

Well, the theory of deconstruction – that there is no such thing as objective truth – is based on Heidegger’s ideas. In many ways, deconstruction became the dominant set of philosophical ideas in the second half of the 20th century in the Western world. De Man became the most influential academic proponent of this theory in the United States but it became influential in many countries. In France with Sartre and Derrida and in Germany through Heidegger himself. They promoted this idea that there is no such thing as objective truth. Interestingly, this concept is back in the news with this whole concept of “alternative facts.” So, this is all sort of immediately returning to the fore.

How do you keep a story that deals with such deeply intellectual ideas of interest to a wide audience?

Well, it’s really a melodrama. It’s a play about the intersection of the lives of these three people and it’s about a love affair. There is a strong story there. The philosophical ideas that the characters are interested in are really incidental. There is a relationship between these characters and those ideas, but it’s not a play in which people spend a lot of time talking about heavy stuff. First and foremost, they are talking about their feelings and emotions.

How did you get connected with The Storm Theatre Company?

I had heard about this theater company for a number of years and many people had told me that I should see their productions. They do a lot of the classics – very often things that have been neglected or forgotten that most theaters don’t do. It’s an interesting company.

I sat through one of their productions and was very impressed. Storm’s artistic director, Peter Dobbins, and I got together and realized that we had certain ideas in common so I showed him the play and he liked it. We had previously developed it at the Actors Studio where people really liked it so Storm decided to produce a full production and brought Christopher Ekstrom on as co-producer. Peter will be directing it. I’m really impressed with his directorial work. I think people will like it.

What is your involvement with the Actors Studio? How does that work as a vehicle to develop a play before it’s ready for production?

The Actors Studio has something called the Playwrights/Directors Unit (PDU) which I have been involved in intermittently. A number of playwrights use it as a place where you can have Actors Studio actors develop your work. We did a number of readings of Deconstruction at the Actors Studio. This gives you a lot of interesting feedback regarding what people like and don’t like.

By chance, someone once brought Marty Peretz, the longtime editor in chief of The New Republic to one of the readings. Marty had actually known Mary McCarthy, Paul de Man and Hannah Arendt! That was really fascinating – to hear feedback from someone who had met all three of these people at different times in his life. To hear his reaction regarding what the play got right and wrong and what it captured was really fascinating and helpful.

Well, Jonathan, thank you for talking to me. I can’t wait to see the play!

Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Deconstruction plays from March 3-25, 2017 at The Storm Theatre Company performing at the Grand Hall at St. Mary’s – 440 Grand Street, in New York, NY. For tickets, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444, or purchase them online.

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