StageSceneLA Review of Hellman v. McCarthy

Hell hath no fury like a best-selling author dissed, or so Lillian “The Little Foxes” Hellman made abundantly clear when she sued fellow writer Mary McCarthy for disparaging words uttered during a 1980 TV interview with PBS talk show host Dick Cavett.

Playwright Brian Richard Mori returns to the scene of the alleged slander with none other than 78-year-old Dick Cavett playing a 40something Dick in Mori’s terrifically entertaining comedy-drama Hellman v. McCarthy, now getting its West Coast Premiere at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40.

Little did Cavett expect when he asked McCarthy whether she found any of her fellow writers overrated that the author of The Group would respond with a terse, “Lillian Hellman. Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’” nor that who should be watching (with her gay male caretaker as witness) but Lillian herself.

And so begins Mori’s 90-minutes of delicious diva-vs-diva drama as lawyers get hired, demands get made, and not just McCarthy but Cavett, his production company, and New York City’s WNET get sued to the tune of a couple million dollars.

Rarely has becoming a fly on the walls of dueling literary icons proven more entertaining than it does in Hellman v. McCarthy, and if Mori pulls a bit of a Maxwell Anderson’s Mary, Queen of Scots in the play’s final face-to-face, there’s clearly more truth than fiction going on.

Audience members may have to insert their own imaginary silk screen whenever Cavett is onstage, but truth be told, he still looks exactly like himself, talks exactly like himself, and even stays after the show to chat with the audience … as himself, and who could possibly ask for more?

One could also hardly ask for two better actresses to play Lillian and Mary than Flora Plumb and Marcia Rodd, the latter of whom is (like Cavett) reprising the role she originated in New York City last year.

Rodd gets the more glamorous part, neatly cut gray bob, high-fashion suits and jewelry, and plenty of self-assured flair, a feisty, smart, witty, formidable rival to her literary nemesis.

It’s Plumb, however, who gets the plummer of the two assignments, and she is a gravely-voiced, potty-mouthed dynamo as Lillian, or at least she is until Hellman’s gradual, painful decline into ill health. Nasty and vindictive Hellman can be, but Plumb manages to make us care for the irascible old bird, and the same can be said for her feudmate.

John Combs and Martin Thompson do very good work as Lillian’s and Mary’s reluctant lawyers, but it is M. Rowan Meyer, recreating the role he originated in New York, who steals the show as the diligent, caring, much put-upon Ryan, taking what could in less gifted hands prove your standard sassy GBF (or GBC for Gay Best Caretaker) and turning him into Hellman v. McCarthy’s heroic secret weapon. (Meyer’s climactic scene opposite Plumb ties Plumb’s opposite Rodd as the evening’s most compelling and applause-worthy.)

Director Howard Storm shares credit for his cast’s terrific performances, and everything looks quite spiffy indeed thanks to Theatre 40’s crackerjack design team.

Jeff G. Rack’s spiffy scenic design gives us Cavett’s studio, Hellman’s apartment, McCarthy’s digs, and other locales in not-quite-fifty shades of gray, Michèle Young’s snazzy costumes neatly evoke the early ‘80s, and Ric Zimmerman lights both set and costumes with his accustomed flair. Sound designer Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski underscores the action with an elegant piano soundtrack.

Rhonda Lord is assistant to the director. Bill Froggatt is stage manager and Richard Carner assistant stage manager. Hellman v. McCarthy is produced by David Hunt Stafford.

Theater 40’s retiree-aged subscriber base could hardly have wished for a more excitingly nostalgic casting coup than Dick Cavett as himself in Hellman v. McCarthy, but even those too young to recall the Emmy winner’s hit talk show days will find playwright Mori’s bitch match well worth a ringside seat.