The instant Dick Cavett walked onto the stage of Hellman v. McCarthy at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, big smiles appeared on all the audience members’ faces, including mine!
He plays himself in this imaginary tale based on a real-life event, that so many people other than I seem to know about.
The weird thing is, I’m very familiar with Dick Cavett, but I don’t recall ever seeing any of his shows! I think that I thought they were too “grown-up” for me when I was younger, the way 60 Minutes was. I thought it was something for parents to watch because the little bit I did see appeared to be so much more intelligent than the other basic talk shows.
So, here’s the premise of the play: when Dick had a TV talk show in the late ’70s, author Mary McCarthy was a guest on it, and she maligned more famous author, Lillian Hellman, right on the air. The show wasn’t live, so the people who check that kind of stuff for the producers probably should have edited it out, but they did not. When Lillian saw the show, she hit the roof and the adventure began. (And hence, the title of this play, Hellman v. McCarthy. Simple and to the point.)
So, the true parts of this play are that event, and that Hellman did sue McCarthy, Cavett, the show, and PBS (who aired it,) until she died. But, other than what was said on the actual Dick Cavett Show, the rest of the dialogue (and the scenes,) are fictional. But they easily could have been what happened. I don’t think there’s anyone around who knows all the exact deets.
Even though I knew nothing of this story going in, I found it fascinating. It makes for a really fun play. The writing is good, the acting excellent all the way around, the set is utilitarian enough, and the direction, (by sitcom veteran Howard Storm,) keeps it all moving. (The play is an hour and forty minutes, with no intermission, but goes by pretty quickly.)
But the absolute, hands-down, indisputable highlight is seeing Dick Cavett play…Dick Cavett!!! What a brilliant idea that was!
And let me tell you, it’s no easy feat to play oneself. I once read for a role that actually said, “Female, late 20s, [when I was!,] to play TV hostess Karen Salkin. If you represent Karen, please let us know.” I was shooting another project that day, and my agent pulled me off the set to send me in for this. (Yes, I did ask why the producers couldn’t just give me the part, since it was to play, well, me! But they insisted on seeing me.) And guess what? I didn’t get the job! The job of playing ME! How is that even possible?! (I think I was just a bit attitudinal about having to audition for it, so perhaps that turned them off. Ya think?!)
So, back to Dick Cavett. He did the perfect job of playing himself! He’s adorable! And, he looks exactly the same as he did my whole life!!! You know how no one looks like his or her younger self? (That concept was actually confirmed for me last night, when I saw SNL‘s 40th Anniversary Special.) Well, that’s not the case with Dick. It’s pretty amazing.
And he has the same, great, low-key delivery that he’s always had. His whole presence and demeanor were sort-of comforting.
Hellman v. McCarthy was entertaining enough, but when it was over, Dick Cavett took questions from the audience! That was so unexpected and special. (I was waiting for him to break out a magic trick or two, since that’s where his interests also lie, but no luck on that count.) I was so glad he did, because I didn’t understand his changing jackets toward the end, and he explained it! What a bonus for nuts like me, who can’t rise above minutia like that.
The only real thing that confused me a bit was that, at the very beginning of the play, it appeared that the scene was that he was doing his show from 1979. But a few scenes later, he was talking to us like it’s modern-day, and he was explaining what took place back in the day. My advice is that, when you see the show, just go with it. All Dick’s bits are funny, no matter when they’re supposed to be taking place, so just enjoy.
I’m highly recommending this play, whether you’re of an age to remember the whole incident, or so young that you don’t know who the heck any of these characters are. (If you’re in the latter category, just think of it as an early-day Taylor Swift-Katy Perry feud.) It’s the play itself that’s totally entertaining, with no slow parts at all.
Theatre 40 was packed on what my mother would call “a plain little Thursday night,” so don’t delay in going to see it while you can. (It’s here just until the end of the month, with an extra one-performance-only at the near-by Saban Theatre.)