Well this is a waste of ink. Lillian Hellman’s iconic mink coat (What becomes a legend most?) had more going for it than does the content of this play.
The premise here is a revisit of the Hellman vs. McCarthy suit that had all sorts of people buzzing back in 1979. Mary McCarthy, (Marcia Rodd) a well-known journalist, was a guest on the Dick Cavett (played by Mr. Cavett himself) show, which was at that time part of the PBS lineup on WNET. For those of you who never saw it, think Charlie Rose with shorter questions. McCarthy was lamenting the dearth of good writers. When Cavett mentioned Hellman, McCarthy responded, “Every word that Lillian Hellman writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”
Lillian Hellman (Roberta Maxwell) watched the show that night. Hellman was not known for taking anything lying down. She was a self centered and often not so very nice person. She sued McCarthy for whatever it is you sue people for when they say something about you that you don’t like. When that initial action did not produce the desired results – Hellman said she wanted an apology – she also sued Dick Cavett and PBS.
Well it was a huge kafuffle in the literary world. Most people looked upon this move by Hellman as unwise in the extreme. And like anyone in a negative spotlight she began to pull more and more negative attention to herself. The speculation that her story Julia was a fabricated memoir resurfaced. Her support of Stalin was hoisted up, and plenty of folks saluted. The woman who had received a standing ovation at the Academy Awards was now the object of pity and distain. Hellman did nothing to help herself.
While this is a tantalizing subject for a play, Mr. Mori does little to keep our interest. The vital scenes – like when it was broken to Cavett that he was included in the suit, are just not there. The bulk of the play is packed with exposition that is just that. Hellman is portrayed as miserable woman whose health was fading fast. Period. The suit ended when she died. McCarthy here is prim and proper and utterly without depth. The only color brought to the production is the fine work by Peter Brouwer as Hellman’s lawyer, Lester Marshall. Dick Cavett himself seems suspended between decades, and along with the other actors is not certain of his lines. Cavett emerges at the end of the show, as if he were back on the TV set, to take questions. When asked if he had anything good to say about Hellman, he couldn’t.
It’s hard to figure out the point of this play. There was no drama. Just a recitation of the facts, and everyone was stacked against Hellman. That is not drama. That is just one-sided reportage. Even when Mori tries his hand at fiction – there is a lackluster scene between Hellman and McCarthy that is followed by Cavett explaining that such a meeting never took place – we are left unmoved. This is a sad tale told without a smidge of vibrancy. A soggy affair all around. Even the cigarettes lacked spark – they were electric.
For what it’s worth, when I want a good read, I haul out my dog eared copy of Pentimento.
Hellman v. McCarthy
By Brian Richard Mori; directed by Jan Buttram; sets by Andrew Lu; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Travis McHale; sound by Ian Wehrle; production stage manager, Mark Hoffner; production manager, Libby Jensen. Presented by Abingdon Theater Company, Jan Buttram, artistic director; Heather Henderson, managing director. At the June Havoc Theater, Abingdon Theater Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street, 866-811-4111, Manhattan; abingdontheatre.org. Through April 13. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Dick Cavett (Dick Cavett), Roberta Maxwell (Lillian Hellman), Rowan Michael Meyer (Ryan Hobbs), Marcia Rodd (Mary McCarthy), Jeff Woodman (Burt Fielding) and Peter Brouwer (Lester Marshall).