Melissa Friedman and David Strathairnin Hannah & Martin(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Melissa Friedman and David Strathairn
in Hannah & Martin
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
"He has shown with his life that his thinking is flawed," Karl Jaspers says of Martin Heidegger in Kate Fodor's Hannah & Martin. It's a remark that goes to the heart of the complex matter in the playwright's depiction of the love affair and subsequent not-such-love affair between 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger and political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose lasting contribution to Bartlett's Dictionary of Quotations may be her "banality of evil" theory.

Perhaps it's off-putting to suggest that the allure of Hannah & Martin -- "allure" is definitely the word -- is its concentration on thinking as maybe the most crucial human endeavor. But if it does cool enthusiasm for the play, that'd be a big shame. Arendt was so fascinated by the process that she parsed it in one of her myriad New Yorker essays and, in doing so, called attention to how genuinely thrilling thinking is. Playwright Fodor, herself the daughter of a philosopher and aware of the subject's potential, has been motivated to create a play in which she observes a handful of people immersed in significant thought. More than that, she's written a drama throughout which it's impossible for an audience member not to think and from which it's impossible not to exit without continuing to consider the text's arguments.

At times in Hannah & Martin the steam of heated thought can almost be seen pluming from ticket-buyer's ears. In the second act, there's an encounter between the former lovers that is chunky with challenges to think. Having fallen in love with Heidegger (David Strathairn) when she was his student, Arendt (Melissa Friedman) is now much older but still enough in his thrall -- and in thrall to how she believes he molded her restless mind -- that she refuses to accept his embrace of Hitler. That embrace has led to his being banned from his teaching and lecturing duties in the years immediately following World War II. At first, Arendt favors the action but reverses her stance, arguing for his reinstatement. But not without coming to some understanding of his motives. Hence the pivotal confrontation, during which it's the hardened auditor who doesn't questioning his or her beliefs, weigh them, tussle with them, lose faith in and regain trust in them, even re-prioritize them. "It occurs to me sometimes that perhaps it is uneconomical of the world simply to discard him," Arendt has earlier said to Jaspers (George Morfogen) of Heidegger. "It's not as though there's a surplus of brilliance."

Note in Arendt's remark the tentative "sometimes" and "perhaps," which suggest uncertainty within what is being put forth as certainty. But also note that, following the Arendt-Heidegger relationship -- one of the strangest literal bedfellow couplings in political and philosophical history -- Fodor doesn't use the participants' actual dialogue. Although numerous letters between Arendt and Heidegger exist and have been published, there aren't enough on which to base a wholly accurate portrait of their liaison. Fodor has said she came "to believe that Arendt engaged in some sort of struggle to understand how she could still care so deeply for somebody who had embraced the very things she had spent her life fighting. But there is no evidence of this in her letters."

It follows then that Hannah & Martin is Fodor's thinking about what Arendt -- and, to some extent, of course, Heidegger -- were thinking. The scenes in her two-act drama make up a fictionalized account of the affaire Arendt-Heidegger. That may be the reason why some, if not much, of what the first-time dramatist imagines the focal players said and did is awkwardly constructed, and emerges more as debate than conversational give-and-take. Although, of course, it may have been true that when entrenched thinkers like Arendt, Heidegger, and Jaspers engaged one another, their discourse was palpably more debate than banter.

Because Fodor was more involved with supposition than with accurate biography, there is also a sketchiness to her writing. She's chosen to cover a good deal of ground as she suggests what might have occurred when Arendt and Heidegger first meet, begin their short-lived affair, become colleagues, fall out of touch with each other (as they did for 17 years from the mid-30s until the late 40s), meet again when they are both older if not equally wiser. During the advancing decades, Fodor also brings on Heidegger's wife Elfride (Laura Hick) who had more than an inkling of what was going on, and Jasper's perceptive wife, Gertrud (Sandra Shipley), of whom Arendt comments, "You see, you are a philosopher." Furthermore, Fodor frames her Arendt-Heidegger diptych with her secretary Alice (Teri Lamm) refusing to type the letter in which her boss urges the disgraced man's cause as well as with the trial at Nuremberg of Hitler Youth organizer Baldur von Schirach (Brandon Miller), which Arendt was following for another of her compulsively readable New Yorker series.

Choppy as Hannah & Martin intermittently may be, Fodor's work -- perhaps more a labor of fascination than love -- can't be dismissed. Curiously, it goes some way toward overturning the "banality of evil" phrase Arendt coined, because there is little commonplace about the evil Arendt examines from several angles. Since Fodor is candid about the liberties she's taken, she implies her purpose has less to do with historical accuracy as it has to do with using historical figures as opportunities for sparking contemplation of difficult issues. There's no telling how close she's gotten to the real Arendt, Heidegger, Jaspers, et al. Nevertheless her Arendt and Heidegger demand attention. Their mentor-student relationship shifts and yet never entirely alters, despite Arendt's maturing from a serious but impressionable pupil to a formidable woman and Heidegger's change from a self-assured professor to a man in torment over his expectation of a grand, even Wagnerian, future for Germany never materializing.

Director Ron Russell puts these forces into momentum-gathering play on Nathan Heverin's set with its no-nonsense furniture and in Margaret E. Weedon's no-nonsense costumes and under Elizabeth Gaines's brooding lights. Although it seems odd for Russell to have instructed the actors not to light the many cigarettes they smoke (did mayor Bloomberg have a say in this at an early preview?), he makes no other mistakes. Melissa Friedman, probably better looking than Arendt, still manages to seem severe of feature and facial expression throughout. She does let her acting show in some of the earlier scenes, but when she works up to the anger Arendt manifests in the later bout with Heidegger, she meets all requirements.

David Strathairn, who becomes the man he's impersonating in whatever production is lucky to have him, keeps Heidegger's mystery without ever seeming unfocused. He's especially compelling as the aging Heidegger insistent that humanity has let him down rather than the other way around. George Morfogen, whose wounded intelligence shines through in all his performing, gives Jaspers enlightened gravitas. In the other pithy roles, Sandra Shipley, Laura Hicks, Teri Lamm, Brandon Miller and James Wallert lend substantial weight and measure.

The phrase "opposites attract" may never have been appropriately applied to a more puzzling pair than to Arendt and Heidegger. Anyone familiar with the works of either or both has at some time had to have pondered in what heaven this match could have been made. Kate Fodor has paused longer than most, and it's a boon that she has. If nothing else, she's produced a thinking-woman's play about an always-thinking woman and man.