Examiner.com Review: Dick Cavett Charms in “Hellman v. McCarthy”

Dick Cavett Charms in “Hellman v McCarthy”

Original Play
Rating: 5 Stars

Dry-Witted Dick Cavett in “Hellman v McCarthy”

Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills is bringing audiences Dick Cavett who is reprising his role as himself in Brian Richard Mori’s “Hellman v McCarthy”. It is a real coup for Theatre 40 to present the West Coast Premiere of Mori’s play. Cavett played the role in 2014 in the New York production with Marcia Rodd and M. Rowan Meyer, who are also reprising their roles. And though he quipped, as only Cavett can in his indomitable style, “I was not the first choice for the role”. Clearly, only Dick Cavett could play himself. The play is peppered with those marvelous “Cavettisms”. Though Dick Cavett has aged, his dry wit and charm have not; and he still is in top form. If I had one word about this play, it would be “intelligent.”

The play centers around a remark, writer and critic, Mary McCarthy had made when she was a guest on Dick Cavett’s talk show on PBS in 1980 about her arch rival, the acidic, foul-mouthed, but talented author and playwright, Lillian Hellman. The dapper host, Dick Cavett had played a central role in evoking the response from Mary McCarthy that sparked the lawsuit. Cavett had a list of questions ready to ask McCarthy, and one had to do with “promising new writers”. He asked and even prompted her, but McCarthy did not take her cue. So, Dick Cavett asked instead, who some “over-rated” writers were. McCarthy answered Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck. Then she delighted in adding that Lillian Hellman was a dishonest writer and when Cavett asked further, she replied the damning words, “Every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and the”. McCarthy had alluded to a previous statement she had made in print. That one sentence sparked the feud between the two women that became the fodder for a 2.5 million dollar lawsuit against McCarthy, Dick Cavett, his production company and PBS.

What ifs? What if Cavett had not asked the question which prompted McCarthy’s answer? What if Lillian Hellman had chosen not to watch the PBS interview from her home on Martha’s Vineyard that night? As Dick Cavett told us in the Q and A afterwards, there would not have been the lawsuit, and also there would not have been playwright Richard Mori’s play. We would not have been watching this intelligent, humorous and litigious drama unfold.

At the opening of the play, Dick Cavett entertained us with his stand-up patter as he talked to the “New York studio audience”. He had some typical low key zingers for his studio “warm-up”. A man goes to his doctor. The doctor asks, “Is your penis burning”? “No, I never tried lighting it.” Cavett referred to Oscar night as “Passover.” There were many more of these, but I will not spoil it for you.

Howard Storm directed the ensemble cast to perfection. He had some dynamic split-staging which showed Hellman, so very well acted by Flora Plumb, and her nurse, Ryan (M. Rowan Meyer), in her home on Martha’s Vineyard watching the T. V. show while McCarthy (Marcia Rodd) dropped the bomb that prompted the lawsuit. We saw the interview as it unfolded and Hellman’s reaction, simultaneously. The smoking and drinking, crotchety Hellman’s remark “What a windbag” was tame compared to her foul and colorful language later. Plumb showed all the nuances of the dour, but witty old dame. She aged before our eyes and grew frail as the play progressed. This was quite an acting feat. We again had split-staging for the depositions which added immensely to the action.

Hellman’s attorney, Lester, (John Combs), as her friend, advised her not to sue. Hellman spared, “You’re not my friend.” “I don’t pay my friends”. To no avail he advised her that her health was at stake. And, McCarthy’s attorney, Bert, (Martin Thompson) reminded McCarthy that she did not have the funds to defend the litigation. But, the suit went on for four long years and did drain Hellman’s health and McCarthy’s finances. Dick Cavett later said, “No one won.”

John Combs did a very good job as Lester, the attorney who had to deal with the foul-mouthed Hellman. And, Martin Thompson likewise did a very good job in realizing McCarthy’s mouthpiece, Bert. The deposition scenes were fascinating with a punctuated repartee back and forth. Neither hellcat was about to give in or give up. The feud went deeper. Hellman was a much more prolific and successful author and playwright. She had more money. And, she had bedded McCarthy’s toad of a husband. There was jealousy between the two women on many levels. McCarthy was attractive and more popular with the men. She was an author but she did not have great success. She had written “The Group,” which became a film. Then, she became a critic and wrote for “magazines” as Hellman reminded her.

The legal arguments were interesting. And, director Howard Storm’s simultaneous unfolding of these scenes worked well. While Hellman read McCarthy’s deposition, her attorney, Lester was deposing McCarthy on the other side of the stage. Jeff G. Rack’s spare set which was the PBS studio, Hellman’s kitchen in Martha’s Vineyard and McCarthy’s New York apartment was simple and did not detract from the action. Ric Zimmerman’s lighting design highlighted the actors in the scenes.

Legally, on one side was the First Amendment and freedom of speech, which Hellman championed as a defender of civil liberties and free speech; but ironically she still sued. Hellman was a well-known and respected writer, an icon, and a public figure. Thus, she was ripe for comments and critiques. But, Hellman had her attorney state she was not a public figure, in this instance. McCarthy’s attorney, Bert, argued that the comments his client had made were “protected statements of opinion.” He expected the suit to be summarily dropped by the judge. But, the judge ruled in McCarthy’s favor.

When Bert deposed Hellman, he asked her where the figure of 2.5 million dollars had come from, “out of her hat?” No, “out of my ass”! What a peppery old broad! She claimed irrevocable financial damage to her book sales and plays. It really was a battle of two old, arch rival literary grand dames. Cavett likened it to “two literary lionesses fighting over a zebra carcass”. McCarthy’s attorney was running the clock against Hellman’s health which was deteriorating and Hellman vowed to live to spite McCarthy so she would win the lawsuit.

Cavalier Cavett came in and out of the scenes as the adroit and acerbic leveler with his dry witticisms. He commented and moved the scenes between the two women along. He was the comedic foil for the unfolding action. His timing was right on. He did have some issues finding his “spot” and stepped out of his light when he spoke to one side of the house. But, he recovered with a comment that he hadn’t been used to finding his light in a while. He took it in stride and so did the audience. That was the only snafu. Cavett seemed to favor one side of the house.

There was a key scene in which, the very ill Hellman fought with her nurse, Ryan and slapped him. M. Rowan Meyer was great as the gay nurse who idolized those in the limelight. Ryan was one of the few who remained loyal to Hellman despite her distemper and outbursts. He told her the lawsuit was the biggest mistake of her life and advised her to drop it. What would it take? An “apology by McCarthy”. An apology on Hellman’s terms. Did that happen in real life? No. But we got to see what Cavett referred to as a “simulacrum”. I love that word! The playwright took liberties and had the two women meet in this key scene.

Mori’s play was fascinating on many levels. I learned about the feud, about the two literary figures, and it was delightful to experience the icon, Dick Cavett again doing what he did and does best, being a talk show host. It was a special treat to see Dick Cavett.

Mori captured the dowager, dragon that Hellman was beautifully. And, despite her foul-mouth and ill humor, she was sympathetically played by Flora Plumb as was McCarthy by Marcia Rodd. But, “there were no winners, only losers”. I relished Cavett’s answers at the end of the play as the audience asked questions. Be sure to stay for the Q and A. Cavett added insight and spoke from his personal experiences with the two women. This is an insightful, well-written and well-acted play not to be missed.

Audrey Linden for Examiner.com