Beverly Hills Courier Writeup of HELLMAN V. MCCARTHY

Famed talk show host and author Dick Cavett is bringing his star power to Theatre 40’s latest production.

He plays himself and helps narrate Brian Richard Mori’s Hellman v. McCarthy, running Feb. 7-28 at Beverly Hills’ resident theatre company’s Reuben Cordova Theatre on the BHHS campus.

The play’s inspiration comes from a 1979 episode of The Dick Cavett Show when famed author and guest Mary McCarthy (The Group), discussing other authors and asked a question about Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes) replied: “I said once in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

Hellman, watching the show in her apartment, saw red and filed a lawsuit against McCarthy, Cavett, his production company and the Educational Broadcasting Corporation (WNET). The ensuing four year legal battle only ended with Hellman’s death.

Cavett, who was featured in the show’s Off-Broadway premiere at the Abingdon Theatre, “thought it would be fun to do it again,” and joined a local cast already in rehearsal last week. “Theatre 40 has a good reputation because everybody says so—and I believe them. “

The Theatre 40 and Dick Cavett union came about through an agent, says Artistic and Managing Director David Hunt Stafford. The same agent representing Steven Peterson, winner of the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild Julie Harris Playwright Award for Affluence (produced by the company last year) also represents Mori.

“She called and said the show just closed and Dick Cavett wants to do it on the West Coast,” Stafford recalled. “And she said, ‘I thought of you and the quality of your work. And I knew you’d do a great job.’

“Bringing Dick Cavett we hope will throw a spotlight on us,” said Stafford of the company, now celebrating its 50th year. “We want people to learn about us. We’re well-know in the local theatre community; and we’d like to grow our audience.”

The 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 8 matinee will be a benefit for the company and the theatre guild, “a community-oriented organization that supports us,” Stafford said. Tickets will be $100.

“I’ve always loved Beverly Hills, but never lived in it,” Cavett said in a phone interview. He did live in the area for six months while he was writing for Jerry Lewis’ live two-hour show in 1963. “I know you’re supposed to hate California if you’re from the East Coast; but I had a nice time. I still remember the snails on the side walks of Bel Air—I have strange tastes.”

Cavett recalls a network lawyer complimenting that fateful show and thinking “it’s nice when they can’t find anything to worry about.” So of all the interviews and episodes on his show, he never imaged this one would be turned into a play. “God no. But later I thought there was enough drama to make one. And Richard Mori has done a tremendous job.

“It’s so strange,” Cavett says, recounting that in a pause of a recent rehearsal he told the cast, “If I had said a different sentence to Mary McCarthy that didn’t trigger the ‘dishonest writer and lies’ comment, it would have prevented a four-and-a-half-year lawsuit, the health of both women, and none of us would be standing here. We’d all be somewhere else.”

Cavett appears in the opening recreating a monologue and introducing his first guest, McCarthy. Lights come up on the other side of the stage to reveal Hellman “bitching and smoking—the two things she did other than playwriting,” Cavett says.

“The play is like reading a good novel,” says Cavett. It’s performed without intermission and the “audience is on maximum alert all the way. People get an entertaining evening and no one falls asleep.”

Mori has created a confrontation scene between the two authors near that end that never actually happened. “It’s a wonderful work of imagination that’s probably extremely shrewd,” Cavett says. “Nothing else is fabricated,” Cavett says. “Some of it comes directly from Mary’s lawyer’s inquisition of me.”

Since her quote began, “I said once,” and had been quoted in a magazine, Cavett remembers asking a lawyer at the time that if that set a precedent. “He said, ‘nobody reads,’” Cavett recalls. “You can be denounced in print and it means nothing apparently.”

He believes Hellman was “deeply in the wrong” and the suit “was a lunatic thing to do. She was “a vengeful old crock,” but he liked her, Cavett said. “She was a great talker and fun to be around at the dinner table. Then everything happened. It’s hard to remain friends with someone who sues you for $1.2 million.”

He only knew McCarthy from her appearances on his show and when they both covered the Watergate hearings, her for The New York Review of Books. “We hung out for lunch. She was wonderful to talk to and a wonderful reporter and writer.”

Mori has also added a few things to the script since the New York run. “Probably because I forgot a line and he had to come up with something,” Cavett said.

He doesn’t approach the role as playing himself—“I don’t dare to.” Talking to audiences after the show, he joked that he wasn’t the first choice for the part. “One night a particularly humorous person asked, ‘who was first.?’ I said Sidney Poitier.”

Hellman v. McCarthy Director Howard Storm helmed 59 episodes of Mork & Mindy and almost all the episodes of Rhoda. In an earlier career, Storm was an A-list comic who appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968.

The company also includes members of the original New York cast with Marcia Rodd as McCarthy and Rowan Michael Meyer as Hellman’s long-suffering male nurse. Theatre 40 stalwart Flora Plumb, who’s directed more than 30 plays with the company and appears in The Manor at Graystone mansion, plays Hellman, with company members John Combs and Martin Thompson as lawyers.