Stage and Cinema Review of Hellman v. McCarthy: A Famous Literary Feud Makes Great Drama

In a 1980 television interview with Dick Cavett, novelist and literary critic Mary McCarthy made an especially biting comment about her longtime adversary and fellow writer, playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman, saying that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Unfortunately, Hellman was watching the show that night, and the next morning she initiated a $2,500,000 lawsuit that would remain unresolved until her death four years later.
In 2002, the grudge-match was the source material for Nora Ephron’s Imaginary Friends, a play with songs (music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia) that imagined Hellman and McCarthy reunited in hell. Even with Cherry Jones as McCarthy and Swoosie Kurtz as Hellman, Ephron’s first theatrical work was seen as wonky, and the Broadway production closed after 76 performances.

Over a dozen years later, the feud returned to the stage, this time in a drama by Brian Richard Mori titled Hellman v. McCarthy. After a successful Off-Broadway production at the Abingdon Theatre, the play arrives at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills this Friday for a run through March 1, 2015.

The big attraction here is that Dick Cavett, who was at his charming best in New York, reprises his role as himself. Also from the original off-Broadway production are Marcia Rodd (McCarthy) and M. Rowan Meyer (Ryan, Hellman’s caretaker). Flora Plumb plays Hellman, and John Combs and Martin Thompson round out the cast as the literary giants’ attorneys. Director Howard Storm, one of the most prolific directors in the history of television (Mork and Mindy), actually appeared as an A-list comic on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968.

This “what if?” play takes place in Cavett’s studio, Hellman’s living room, and the law offices. At times McCarthy and Hellman are both in their domains reacting to each other’s comments. Hellman, ailing and feeble, is in the care of a devoted, gay nurse named Hobbs, who is both awed and cowed by Hellman, but somehow manages to maintain a true affection for the difficult woman who takes a droll pleasure in abusing him.

Both lawyers, and eventually even Ryan, advise their clients that they are acting foolishly. With the help of Cavett’s commentary, it becomes increasingly obvious to everyone but Hellman and McCarthy that the two women should take the advice of the more sober-minded people around them. Will anger, the desire for revenge, and self-righteousness prevail?

A highlight of the play is the imagined meeting between Hellman and McCarthy. It has been arranged by their lawyers with the idea that McCarthy will offer some kind of apology and Hellman will accept, but that wouldn’t make good drama—you’ll see what happens. (Although both appeared separately on Cavett’s program at different times, Hellman in real life died before a joint appearance could take place.)

Many people today have no idea who Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy were or what they were known for (perhaps folks remember Mary’s brother, actor Kevin McCarthy). Nevertheless, in a world rife with complaints about the incivility and bullying that goes on over the Internet, it’s nice to know that sophisticated and intelligent people could be every bit as ill-mannered and ill-tempered without the aid of technology.