StageRaw Review of Hellman v. McCarthy

Hellman v. McCarthy
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The first shock offered by Hellman v. McCarthy, Brian Richard Mori’s fascinating stage account of the famously bitter, late-life feud between fiercely recalcitrant literary lionesses Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, is the realization — or rather the reminder — that ideas once meant something in this country.

For a good part of the 20th century, those ideas — particularly among America’s literary left — increasingly took meaning from where one stood on the question of socialism and the ideological divide that opened over Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. That was enough to make the abrasive Hellman, a successful Broadway playwright (The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes), Hollywood screenwriter and staunchly unrepentant Stalinist, and McCarthy, an opinionated critic, novelist (The Group) and devout Trotskyite, despise one another on first sight.

But it was McCarthy’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980, and her immortal quip about Hellman the memoirist (i.e., Pentimento, her 1973 fact-challenged book that became the basis for the 1977 film Julia) — that “every word she writes is a lie, including `and’ and `the'” — which turned mutual dislike into a vicious, four-and-a-half year war of legal attrition when Hellman promptly slapped McCarthy with a $2.25 million libel action.

The second shock of director Howard Storm’s engaging and unassuming production is the larger-than-life presence and affable charm of its true star and real subject — Dick Cavett, who ably serves as narrator and host while capably filling the role of his 35-year-younger self.

Part of the surprise is that the diminutive, 78-year-old TV talk show giant has lost none of the intellectual vigor or supple comic timing that made him the thinking man’s Johnny Carson and that charged his now legendary, in-depth interviews of the reigning cultural and political personalities of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Think: a far more personable and actually entertaining version of Charlie Rose.

Mori’s script cleverly uses the PBS edition of Cavett’s show and its inciting, 1980 interview with McCarthy (played with icy precision by Marcia Rodd) to bookend a probing portrait of Hellman (a flawless Flora Plumb) as an aging and ailing emotional gargoyle. The action spans her futile and ultimately self-destructive attempts to salvage her tarnished reputation by litigiously extorting an apology from the defiant McCarthy. But it is Plumb’s scenes with M. Rowan Meyer (playing Hellman’s gay care giver) that provide the poignant heart of the play, as the actress delicately reveals the wounded humanity beneath Hellman’s off-putting crust and egocentric mendaciousness. John Combs and Martin Thompson provide polished support as the exasperated opposing lawyers.

What may be most astonishing about Hellman v. McCarthy, however, is that somehow its crazy, postmodernist blend of fact, speculative fiction, live reenactment (on Jeff G. Rack’s tastefully austere set) and intimate celebrity evening ultimately turns out to be so satisfying.

And that credit mostly goes to Cavett. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the show without him. Mori’s sometimes extreme concision might well bewilder anybody not already steeped in the late-century scandals of New York’s publishing world. But not only is Cavett on hand to anchor the story in his own eye witness recollections, he fills in many of the critical gaps in what turns out to be both the evening’s final surprise and highpoint — the delightfully erudite audience Q&A he conducts after the final curtain.

Bill Raden for StageRaw
February 12, 2015