Joe Straw Review of Hellman v. McCarthy

“Is he just a left-winger? Is that his problem?” – President Richard Nixon

“I guess so.” – H.R. Haldeman

“Is he Jewish?” – Nixon 

“I don’t know; doesn’t look it.” – H.R. Haldeman

“We’ve complained bitterly about the Cavett show.” – Charles Colsen

“Is there any way we could screw him? That’s what I mean.  There must be ways.” – Nixon – The White House Tapes

With few honest humans left in media and print these days, Dick Cavett can be considered one of the most trusted men in America.

I mentioned to someone that I was going to see Dick Cavett in a play.  My uninformed confrère thought Cavett was dead. I assured this individual that I wasn’t in the habit of watching deceased actors work on stage – what with the smell and lack of movement.

Theatre 40 of Beverly Hills and Michael J. Libow present Dick Cavett in the West Coast Premiere of the Acclaimed New York Production of Hellman v. McCarthy written by Brian Richard Mori, directed by Howard Storm, and Produced by David Hunt Stafford through February 28th, 2015.

Dick Cavett has lost the golden locks and the long sideburns that once accompanied him back in the day but he has not lost his appeal, affable wit, and timing.  One might call him nimble at this point in his career.

There is no mistaking Cavett’s dulcet voice along with his dapper appearance. The green sports coat suits him well this night.  He is nicely tailored, and except for that little tuff of hair protruding from the back of his scalp, he was perfectly coiffed.  That must a comedian trick, serious but funny in the front, and slightly offbeat in the back.

A quick casual observation about Cavett is that he listens, or appears to listen to everything others have to say, without judgment, and then provides his own commentary with a nice little glib and blithe remark. It is certainly a trademark of his character that we have come to thoroughly enjoy over the years.

Cavett brings his fine acting chops on stage doing a few impersonations, narrating the story, and telling a few jokes along the way. The night was a very pleasant evening.

“I hope they don’t clap when he enters the stage.  That would be so sit-com and really not the rules of theatre in Los Angeles.” – Narrator

Okay, so this cue card guy comes out, begging us to applaud as Cavett from The Dick Cavett Show strolls out on stage to tell a few jokes.  It is in the moment, I tell myself, and I can live with that, so I break all my rules and begrudgingly clap.

Following Cavett’s wonderful opening monologue, the play starts in earnest with a couple, upstage right, sitting at a small dinning table. A cantankerous old bird, Lillian Hellman (Flora Plumb), and her too-eager-to-please gay nurse Ryan (M. Rowan) are in a stirring game of Scrabble.  Despite Hellman’s egregious cheating, with lettered tiles flying here and there, Ryan manages to get the best of her.

And, oh my, Hellman hates losing, at anything, so she unceremoniously quits the game, tiles dropping off her every being. She turns to find out what is on TV but there’s not much except The Dick Cavett Show on PBS, and with guest author Mary McCarthy, a woman Hellman personally knows and holds exiguous regard.

Already stewing from the recent Scrabble loss, Hellman wants to see what that “witch”, Mary McCarthy, is doing.

Cavett goads McCarthy into some reckless gossip about good writers and bad writers.  McCarthy latches onto the bad writers bit and mentions Hellman. Suddenly, Hellman is horrified by the slander spewed forth from McCarthy’s lying Irish lips.

“Every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the.”  – Mary McCarthy

Repulsed violently, Hellman’s ceremonious inclination is to dial her attorney, Lester Marshal (John Combs).  If only she could pick up the phone and dial.  Shaking the thick black receiver of the telephone, she demands that Marshal sue Cavett, WNET-TV, and McCarthy.

Marshal doesn’t think it’s a good idea and tells her so because they “are friends.”  And she should listen to her friends.

“I don’t pay my friends.” Hellman

Ouch.

Despite McCarthy’s stinging remarks Marshal does what he is paid to do and employs the argument in court that Hellman is not a public figure.

Notwithstanding, there is a great deal to like in Brian Richard Mori’s play.  At first glance one wonders about the complexity of the drama.  But looking back, after taking a deep breath, one finds a fascinating play dealing with the gradations of truth; moments that are part of the record, moments that may have happened, and moments that are outright fabrication.

One of the finest parts of this play is the scene when Hellman and McCarthy meet.   Hellman is looking for an apology but verbally dukes it out with McCarthy.   Moments later, Cavett, the most trusted man in America, says that scene never happened.

It is with certitude that playwriting can only give us a fair representation of the actual truth. That’s fair to say.  But what are we to make of an entire scene that is completely false but so much fun? And while Mori’s drama does not take us deep into the psyche of the characters, there is enough here to make it an enjoyable evening. Yes, it most certainly was.

Dick Cavett does an impressive job this night.  And it’s really not much of a stretch to play Dick Cavett if you are, in fact, Dick Cavett. There is also that mischievous grin of his when he is caught in an erratic boat of comment unpredictability, floating in unchartered waters, without a paddle, now leaking like a sieve, and wondering how he is going to get out.  He takes everything in stride, comments with a wry sense of humor, and exits, stage left.  Mostly, he brings the background of his character and with him that rich history of his entire being. Also, Cavett is also open for a few questions after the performance and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Flora Plumb is delightful playing Lillian Hellman. The truth plays out in grand fashion in her portrayal.  Her performance moved in the direction of her dying which was the overriding characterization of her persona.  But Hellman finds enough life in her bite to rise above her current ills and sue her counterpart.  And watching McCarthy squirm must have delighted her to no end but we see little of that choice in Plumb on this night.  Fighting the pain of age, a subdued stoicism was a part of her character but offers her little opportunity to do anything else. Also, the Betty Davis slap to her nurse does not progress the scene, the relationship, or the play, and seems slightly out of character for a woman who let her words devour her enemies to death.  On this opening weekend, Hellman’s relationship to the nurse needed work and hopefully a happy medium will be found by the time you see the play. Hellman’s reposeful expression should not be evident until the final victory is hers. The character work is excellent.  One wishes she wasn’t dying through the course of the night. Also, and as an aside, Plumb is much too attractive to play Hellman who wasn’t known for turning heads.

Marcia Rodd, as Mary McCarthy, has a very strong voice and commanding presence that she maintains throughout the play.  McCarthy, a former Vassar College student, writer, critic, and educator, kept her on-camera persona throughout.  Giving her an off-screen persona will have provided Rodd with more nuances to the character. Finding ways to bring her history on stage would help to define her character. Also, McCarthy must be in the lawyer’s office for a reason, maybe she is running out of money or she is trying to find a way out without losing her sanity. The suit is destroying her life, and her way of life.  She says it in words, but the pain in Rodd’s performance does not appear deep, and she is not desperate to end the lawsuit, even though it is killing her character emotionally and financially.  That aside, Rodd has an incredibly strong voice and is very likeable on stage.

John Combs plays Lester Marshal, Hellman’s attorney and does a fine job. Combs is affable and in the moment. As Marshal, he finds a way to attack giving his client a reason for being. Marshal can be sinister in the ways he deals with others around him and maybe he could go a little farther with the intimate details of the character.

Martin Thompson is enjoyable as Bert Fielding, McCarthy’s attorney.  He is the low-budget attorney of the group but really doesn’t get much mileage in the relationship to the high power attorney counterpart. Still, there were some nice little exchanges between the two.

M.Rowan Meyer is very likeable as Ryan, Hellman’s nurse.  Other than taking care of Hellman, Meyer’s approach to the character didn’t find the right connection on this particular night. There must be a reason that he is there, that he puts up with her, that he stays with her through thick and thin and it just can’t be the money. The difficult task for this actor is to find out why he is there and why he is attracted to stay in the relationship.  Finding a creative objective would give him more mileage.  Love is a great equalizer and Ryan must find way to love her, despite the fact that he is gay, to care for her emotionally, physically, and mentally.  And Ryan being gay didn’t move the play in any direction.  He could have easily been straight, another race, female, transgendered, and that would not have changed the objective of the character on this particular night.  That said Meyer is a very engaging young man with a very strong appeal and in the emotional moment.  His scene with Cavett was spot on and extremely funny.

Howard Storm, the director, gives us the moments we so desperately need when venturing out into the theatre night air. The “slap” is a moment that needs reworking.  There is a little bit of creativity and ingenuity needed for the scene when McCarthy and Hellman discuss their previous relationship with each telling the exact story.  Having them intertwined, and in each other’s space, would have brought more life into that scene.   Also in the apology scene, having them on opposite ends of the table lessened the degree of the dramatic conflict needed in that scene. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen two attorneys in a room who haven’t exhausted civility, and are on the edge of trading blows, in words or in emotional deed.

David Hunt Stafford is the wonderful Producer of this show and a guiding light at Theatre 40.

Other members of the valuable crew are as follows:
Rhonda Lord – Assistant to the Director
Bill Froggatt – Stage Manager
Richard Carner – Assistant Stage Manager
Jeff G. Rack – Set Designer
Michele Young – Costume Designer
Ric Zimmerman – Lighting Designer
Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski – Sound Designer

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves talk shows.

Joe Straw
February 19, 2015