Review of Hellman v. McCarthy

In 1979, talk show host Dick Cavett interviewed noted author Mary McCarthy. Her inflammatory comments about writer Lillian Hellman on the air prompted Hellman to institute a libel suit for $2.5 million dollars against McCarthy. The result of that confrontation is the subject of Brian Richard Mori’s play now presented at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills.

McCarthy was, by all accounts, an acerbic intellectual known for her liberal politics and, in particular, antipathy for Stalinism, which Hellman had embraced at one point in her life.

When asked about Lillian Hellman’s worth as an author/playwright, she said that Hellman was a liar; furthermore, every word she had written was a lie, “including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” That Hellman was watching the program kindled her outrage, and she had the financial means to carry out a lengthy denunciation of McCarthy’s statement.

The means by which Mori carries out his play is by enlisting Cavett to appear as if he were re-creating his original talk show. Beginning with his opening monologue, he sets the stage for the drama to follow. He also acts as the narrator, commenting on the interchanges between the two angry women as the four-year lawsuit unfolds.

At 74, Hellman was in poor health, and Flora Plumb effectively brings her to life in the midst of her personal turmoil. Her longtime lover, Dashiell Hammett, had died years earlier, and she is living a sheltered life with a nurse, Ryan (M. Rowan Meyer). She is testy and difficult, and her zeal for personal retribution drives her final days.

As McCarthy, Marcia Rodd brings to life the waspish, Vassar-educated writer of The Group. Refusing to back down or recant her statement, she nervously worries about her finances but maintains her superiority over Hellman.

Meyer makes the most of his limited role as caretaker, even though Hellman is not easy to take care of. When she pushes his patience, he lets loose some anger, but he is still overawed by her achievements.

Director Howard Storm moves his actors briskly through the many scenes effectively. He keeps a fine balance between humor and pathos as the story unfolds.

The play is a very slight re-telling of the larger literary and political story. Much historical detail is left out or glossed over, including the veracity of McCarthy’s claims that Hellman lied to the House on Un-American Activities and other instances of Hellman’s falsehoods. It is more about the women in a cat fight than a representation of the lives of the two women. One scene shows the two women together in a mannered and posturing confrontation. That never happened, but it makes good theater.

Having said that, it is enjoyable seeing the legendary 78-year-old Cavett deliver his lines with charm and his usual wit. The construction of Mori’s play allows for his frequent appearances, and that is worth the 90-minute production.