The Los Angeles Post Review: Hellman v. McCarthy dialogue is “acidly funny”

In 1973, Dick Cavett scored a talk-show coup when the prickly, reclusive Katharine Hepburn sat down with him for a lengthy interview. At one point, Cavett said to her, “Do you remember me as an actor?” When Hepburn stared blankly, Cavett told her that, as a young actor, he’d been in The Merchant of Venice, starring Hepburn, at Connecticut’s Stratford Festival, and had one line, which he then rattled off. With a dazzling smile, Hepburn murmured, “And is that the way you said it?” – the unmistakable implication being that, if so, there was ample reason for her amnesia.

Thankfully, Mr. Cavett has improved with age, and he serves as the charming, low-key center of Hellman v. McCarthy, about the feud between two of America’s “literary lionesses.” Though episodic and occasionally didactic, the play nevertheless proves to be an absorbing cautionary tale about the dangers of taking oneself too seriously.

And yes, it does take acting talent to play yourself. Mr. Cavett recreates portions of the interview he conducted in 1979 with Mary McCarthy, an acerbic writer (The Group) and critic, whose comment on the show about another author that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’” led to an infamous lawsuit. He speaks his own words re-enacting the deposition he gave in the suit (he and his production company were also named as defendants, as was the network), and, from time to time, he steps onstage to comment on a scene we’ve just witnessed, or to provide informational tidbits about the personalities involved.

The playwright, Brian Richard Mori, scored a coup of his own by writing Mr. Cavett into the play and getting him to take the role. For while Cavett is the glue which holds the evening together, he’s not the central character.

That honor is split between McCarthy (Marcia Rodd) and her nemesis, Lillian Hellman (Flora Plumb). Hellman, a screenwriter and playwright (The Little Foxes) who also published several volumes of memoirs, happened to be watching the Cavett program when McCarthy made the “every word she writes…” pronouncement about her. By all accounts a towering egotist and thoroughly unpleasant person, Hellman sued McCarthy for libel, and the battle was on.

The play documents the progress of what almost every rational person realized was preposterous, but which Hellman pressed – literally – to the end, which came only with her death four years after the suit was initiated.

There’s bile to spare in the dialogue, much of it acidly funny. The two women apparently despised each other, and both were smart, tough, and unwilling to give an inch. Hellman, a heavy smoker, was seriously ill when she filed the suit, and it’s implied the stress of it contributed to her further decline. McCarthy, with considerably fewer monetary resources than Hellman, found herself equally stressed, desperate to come up with cash to defend herself as the suit dragged on.

Under Howard Storm’s direction, the actresses are well-matched. Rodd, who created the role off-Broadway, exudes self-confidence approaching braggadocio as a critic with palpable disdain for writers who don’t meet her standards. Plumb has a field day with the foul-mouthed, basilisk-eyed Hellman, whose increasing frailty causes her to rely on – and abuse – a young gay male nurse. Mr. Mori has given each woman a few moments of surcease from the fight, and the actresses make the most of them: Ms Rodd in an exchange with her lawyer as she agonizes whether to mortgage her house, and Ms Plumb in a quiet scene with her nurse, as she recalls the years with her longtime lover, the author Dashiell Hammett.

Near the end of the play, Mr. Mori has imagined an encounter where the antagonists finally face each other, in person, for the first time since their war was declared. Ms Plumb and Ms Rodd chew the scenery with relish, and the result is the highlight of the evening.

As the nurse, M. Rowan Meyer gives a grounded and sympathetic performance as a young man who tries his best in an impossible situation, and John Combs and Martin Thompson provide solid support as the attorneys who probably would prefer sharing a drink or two than having to argue their clients’ increasingly untenable positions in court.

The costumes, by Michele Young, are appropriately elegant. Jeff G. Rack’s set, predominantly gray and white, also has a certain elegance, but since it must represent multiple locations including, among others, Cavett’s studio, Hellman’s dining room, various law offices, and a courtroom, the permanent display of dishes and cups in a wall-mounted cabinet proves distracting – better the abstract image of an empty frame on another wall, allowing our imaginations to fill it in. And, for whatever reason, on opening night, Cavett seemed to have problems finding his light – he tried a number of times, and didn’t always succeed.

Most annoying is the decision to end (almost) every scene with a blackout, the stage then remaining dark until the actors are in place for the next. With fewer scenes, and briefer blackouts, it would be fine. However, Hellman v. McCarthy is made up of what seems like dozens of short scenes, and many of the blackouts seem interminable, especially accompanied by the insipid music. Aside from emphasizing the episodic nature of the play, the audience can see the actors tentatively checking to be sure they aren’t going to fall while exiting or entering in darkness. Since a few of the scene changes are, in fact, done in semi-light, we can’t help wondering, why not all?

In the end, aside from resurrecting two colorful writers – fun in itself – Hellman v. McCarthy reminds us of the dangers of outsize egos and the intransigence they can cause. Hellman’s suit focused attention on the exaggerations and inaccuracies in her memoirs, causing more people to regard her work with a jaundiced eye; McCarthy’s stubbornness brought her to near-bankruptcy. And the ultimate irony is the subject of the play’s running gag: the Cavett-McCarthy interview was on PBS – so probably no one other than Hellman saw it anyway.