Broadway World Review: HELLMAN V. MCCARTHY Absorbing Theatrical Evening

Hellman v. McCarthy
by Brian Richard Mori
directed by Howard Storm

It all started simply enough when Dick Cavett invited author/critic Mary McCarthy on his PBS talk show on January 25, 1980. What resulted from a completely unplanned remark was one of the biggest literary feuds in history. McCarthy, when asked by Cavett to mention questionable authors at the time, is quoted as responding about the dishonesty of Lillian Hellman “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the'”. Hellman just happened to be watching the TV program and proceeded to sue McCarthy, Cavett and the network for over a million dollars.

Brian Richard Mori has written a very well-structured and engrossing play about the feud entitled Hellman v. McCarthy, receiving its west coast premiere at Theatre 40, starring the one and only Dick Cavett as himself. The play starts with the broadcast in 1980 and proceeds to cover the four year period of the lawsuit until the death of Hellman. McCarthy (Marcia Rodd), intelligent and forthright, is hitting bottom financially and so a lawsuit could destroy her. Yet, she is willing to go into court to bring Hellman down. Hellman (Flora Plumb), vengeful and downright nasty and in the poorest of health, is determined in her usual indefatigable way to make the whole issue a rampant crusade, citing McCarthy’s intentional malice toward her. There are lawyers on hand Lester Marshal for Hellman (John Combs) and Burt Fielding (Martin Thompson) for McCarthy, who at one point in the script before presenting a deposition to the judge, laugh – off the record – about their clients, stating “They deserve one another”. Lawyers being lawyers, are they truly insightful or just plain hypocritical a–holes? Maybe a little of both in Mori’s eyes. After all, how can you take them too seriously when Hellman got away with not being classified a public figure? Ridiculous!

Mori’s meticulous portraits of all the characters especially the women are right on target and he builds the storyline with tremendous suspense throughout the 100 minute one-act. There is a climax scene, a meeting between the two legends, which never occurred, but proves a dramatic gem, showing the unflinching tenacity of both, struggling to hold onto some honor and dignity amidst what is left of their disintegrating careers as authors. Another character Ryan Hobbs (M. Rowan Meyer), a gay male nurse to Hellman, is her punching bag, but sadly her only real friend. Thanks to Mori, another wonderful scene emerges between these two, where they shakily connect, relating the value of love.

Director Howard Storm keeps a dynamic pace, and the cast is glorious from top to bottom. Cavett, precious, personable Dick Cavett, all boyish charm and unstoppable wit, is a delight, pulling us in to every syllable he utters. His tiny movements, a hint of a bow or little jig, are deliciously subtle. One must remember how difficult it must be to play oneself in a dramatic work, and he carries it off with aplomb. Rodd is strong yet brittle as McCarthy and Plumb, in her spiteful manner, chain-smoking and spitting out nasty remarks, proves how deeply bitter and alone Hellman was. Both performances are terrific. Meyer is sympathetic as Ryan and wins our hearts. He is especially funny in his unexpected meeting with Cavett. Both hail from Nebraska, attended the same high school and do a delightfully comedic rendering of the spirited school song. Combs and Thompson fulfill their obligations as the lawyers with the utmost flair. Jeff Rack’s set is simple and functional, as it moves from the studio to the residences of the two women and onto the court.

Don’t miss Hellman v. McCarthy! It is a riveting piece that will keep you on the edge of your seats. It is simultaneously intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable theatre. And with Dick Cavett on board, who could ask for anything more?