by HALEY HUNTLEY
Deb Debbie Deborah doesn’t make sense. Jerry Lieblich’s play skirts logic, defies pattern, and resists resolution. It knows it’s doing those things, though, and you catch on eventually. You can sense in the beginning of this Theatre of NOTE production that it won’t be a typical story once its main character, Deb (a New York art school grad with a long-term boyfriend and a new job), starts to question her grasp on reality. By the middle, it’s obvious that the play is toying with form: different actors swap in and out to play Deb’s boyfriend and boss, but this totally freaks Deb out, so you figure that at least she can act as your barometer for “normal.” But eventually, those actors tag in to play the role of Deb, too, and obliterate one constant on which you’ve come to rely. By the end, you figure there will be no untangling of the mess, no “that was all a weird dream” absolution.
I like problems with answers, patterns, and codes. I like the Romance languages, because an Italian word can lead you, with a mathematical switching of vowels, directly to its counterpart in Spanish or French. I like metaphors, for the way they translate realities into poetry via a thought process you can trace. I don’t like fantasy unless it’s allegory, when there’s a one-to-one correlation between the rules of our world and the rules of some fictional place. (When I was little, I quit reading Harry Potter because the proper nouns — Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Dumbledore — sounded haphazardly invented to me, like a false cipher with no linguistic code to break.) I like stories that make sense, and art that makes sense, which doesn’t preclude the occasional abstract stroke or aesthetic flourish: the Italian word for butterfly is “farfalla,” the Spanish is “mariposa,” the French is “papillon,” and I like those because they are beautiful outliers in an otherwise sensible scheme.
It was with this brain that I processed D Deb Debbie Deborah as it unfolded in front of me. When two male actors swapped back and forth to play Deb’s boyfriend and Deb’s boss, I hypothesized this was a statement about gender — that the dominant males in a modern woman’s life occupy a similar space, or that they’re interchangeable, or temporary? But eventually a female actor stepped in for those roles, so that hypothesis withered.
There’s a scene that takes place at an art gallery party, wherein each of the actors plays multiple roles, sometimes only delivering a single line as one character before mutating into another. I wondered if this was perhaps the embodiment of Deb’s disorientation in a new crowd? But then the actress playing Deb slips into a different character, too, and the character of Deb gets lost in the chorus. So maybe it’s a representation of social anxiety, I posited, or a comment on “hive mind” and its filtration of art? T.B.D.
And then there’s the task Deb is asked to perform at her new job with a famous artist named Mark. As she sits at a drafting table making copies of some single mysterious thing, Mark stops short. He asks her to repeat a phrase she’s just said out loud, thinking he detected a British accent when she spoke. Without explanation, he requests that she use a British accent from here on out. He positions her hands and head in a specific shape and asks that she maintain it. I struggled to categorize this odd set of behaviors to unearth meaning: “Creepy Male Boss Power-Trips with Impressionable Female Employee” (but there wasn’t anything too overtly sexual), so maybe “Brilliant But Socially Inept Artist Abuses Apprentice’s Talent & Time” (but Deb didn’t seem to clock the task as abuse), so I filed this, too, with a question mark.
It’s not as if this is some esoteric performance art piece that mocks your attempts to understand it — no, D Deb Debbie Deborah is scratching at something else. It’s definitely a play: it establishes itself as a basic narrative in a reality near to our own and only choses certain moments to depart, both in content and form (farfalla, mariposa, papillon). It makes just enough sense to keep me grounded, but not enough to provide me with a decent summary to offer to my friends who asked, “What was it about?” It’s not surprising to me that I, at first, attempted to hold each beguiling moment up against a key of my own logic and experience. But what is surprising to me is the total satisfaction I felt by the end, even when all my accumulated efforts to make sense of the thing had fallen short.
So how does something like this satisfy my code-breaker’s need for meaning? I went searching (for answers, obviously, hi, remember me?) and found the following excerpt from an interview with Deb playwright, Jerry Lieblich, from 2013:
“I’m always a sucker for a play that takes you through an experience, rather than depicts that experience… I love plays that give me space and agency as an audience member, plays that don’t do my thinking for me, but invite me to fill in the gaps. Be just a little confusing, so I’ve got something to do while I’m in the audience.”
Deb certainly seems like that play, but my first attempts at filling each gap felt superficial, or beside the point. These gaps felt like questions without answers. Of course, this is not the first time I’ve bumped up against this philosophy as it relates to art, or to life in general. I’m a millennial with a liberal arts education and a yoga studio membership, so I’ve been gifted Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice from three different people:
“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”
But what does that even mean, to “live the questions?” How do you do that? Like, actually do that?
That perplexing scene from Mark’s artist studio, wherein Deb follows strange instructions, returns more than once, and each time new information settles into the landscape. We learn that the image Deb has been copying is a signature of one mysterious “Veronica Schuster.” Mark’s other employee establishes this as normal, remarking to Deb, “He’s got you on the Veronica project.” In the last scene, the Veronica project takes shape as an intricate reenactment of a memory. Deb plays the role of Veronica (it seems he’s been grooming her for this), and Mark plays a younger version of himself. We recognize a quote from that first scene where Mark asked that Deb repeat a phrase — this is what he was recalling. Veronica must have been, we assume from Deb’s portrayal, a charismatic English artist who disarmed the awkward Mark once upon a time — at art school maybe — endeared herself to him, perhaps even loved him. There’s so much specificity in the exchange, but very little in the way of answers. All we know is, for Mark, the significance is profound.
Around two years into my second serious relationship, way later than this should have happened if it was ever going to happen, my new boyfriend laughed on the other end of the phone and sounded, somehow, just like my old boyfriend. I stood still — I remember, it was on a sidewalk at night — and tried to replay the laugh in my head, to match it against a memory of that other laugh. The two men are so unalike — I hadn’t spotted similarities before this one, and certainly not in the way they spoke. I hadn’t heard the first boyfriend laugh in forever, and I’d heard the second one laugh every day for two years. I had a hundred questions:
Why didn’t this happen before? What do I do if it happens again? Do I feel nostalgic, happy, sad, secretive, guilty? Is thinking of someone the same thing as missing someone? Has my laugh ever sounded like someone else’s? What about the way I say “goodnight?” Does it mean something about love that my mind jockeys back and forth between two people in certain unpredictable moments? Is there a short in my brain? Does my mind simply hear that laugh as the laugh of Someone Who Loves Me?
I remember this moment on the phone and the few that have followed it since, and to anyone who would ask, I would say, “It’s probably nothing.” But nothing weighs nothing, and these moments weigh something, don’t they? When Mark thinks he hears Veronica in Deb’s voice and freezes, I get it. I don’t know what it means for him, but I fill in my own experience. When he asks her to reenact it, I don’t think he even knows precisely why, or what he’ll get out of it. I think he just wants to pause inside that feeling, or memory, to prove it was real, to prove he’s real. I get that, too. Moments like these are the real pieces of a life in the same way that eating and weather are, only they can’t be explained quite the same way as a meal or rain, and they don’t lead directly to a logical feeling like thirsty or wet. These moments happen in that liquid space of memory and feeling and thought and spirit, and they stay there. They’re for experiencing, maybe, not for understanding or forming into some next step. They’re Rilke’s questions, I think, and Lieblich’s elements of a good play, and maybe I’ll borrow his request and use it for my life: “Be just a little confusing, so I’ve got something to do.”
NOW PLAYING: D DEB DEBBIE DEBORAH at Theatre of NOTE, through September 17.
D Deb Debbie Deborah tackles questions of self, one’s place in the world, where we fit in, and who, exactly, takes authorship of his or her art.