“A work of fiction based on fact about the greatest literary feud in modern American history.”
Hellman v. McCarthy is a portrait of two obstreperous women whose political opinions were enmeshed with their careers and of a gratuitous five year law suit that held them both in thrall. Hellman receives more attention. Even in death, her outsized personality demands it. Playwright Brian Richard Mori builds conjecture onto public records creating plausible scenarios. These culminate in a fictional meeting which sizzles as much as it informs. (Top photo: Marrcia Rodd as Mary McCarthy and Dick Cavett)
Dick Cavett, a major “get” for the production, acts as solo Greek Chorus as well as playing himself. Ambling on set to appreciative applause, the familiar personality stops time. “I’ve been looking back at my old nightclub act and the things I wrote for Johnny Carson,” he says beginning a loosey goosey opening monologue.
Rowan Michael Meyer and Roberta Maxwell (Lillian Helman)
Without reference to the film The L-Shaped Room, we might assume the wry performer is addressing us in real time. In fact, it’s January 25, 1980. Cavett is taping his PBS television show. Slightly blue, oddly sweet ba-dump-dump jokes precede the introduction of Mary McCarthy (Marcia Rodd) author of The Group. “Many say she’s too clever for her own good. I say she’s too good to be considered only clever.”
In the course of what appears to be an uncontroversial interview, Cavett comments “we’re always being told who to read” and asks his guest to name some authors we could do without. Citing John Steinbeck as overrated, motor-mouth McCarthy goes on to describe Lillian Hellman as both bad and dishonest. “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.”
At the other side of the stage, 75 year-old Hellman (Roberta Maxwell) is cheating at Scrabble with her brow-beaten male nurse, Ryan (Rowan Michael Meyer). Despite, or because of her dislike of McCarthy, she tunes in the show. Hearing McCarthy’s crack is tantamount to seeing the whites of her enemy’s eyes.
Roberta Maxwell (Lillian Hellman) and Dick Cavett
Hellman files for “damages causing mental pain and anguish” with cackle and swoop rivaling the Wicked Witch. Despite having actually met McCarthy on only one disagreeable occasion years earlier, the law suit becomes an obsession. As her paranoia grows, the action distracts Hellman from work and compounds her deteriorating health as well as almost bankrupting McCarthy.
Neither Hellman’s lawyer, Lester Marshall (Peter Brouwer) nor McCarthy’s attorney, Burt Fielding (Jeff Woodman), can budge their clients. In private, they agree the women deserve one another. Cavett tells us the overwhelming majority, lead by Norman Mailer and William Buckley are on Mary’s side.
This is smart writing requiring a smart audience. Expertly staged to illuminate character as well as depict literally side by side reactions, it also specifies political issues which may lose you if not well informed. Acting and Direction are both incisive.
Peter Brouwer, Jeff Woodman, Marcia Rodd (Mary McCarthy)
Roberta Maxwell is crackerjack as Lillian Hellman. Cigarettes and alcohol seem an extension of her arm. Dialogue like “Are you gonna sue the bitch or do I have to find another cocksucker?!” is ejected without qualification. Eruptions feel offhand/second-nature. Hellman appears painfully infirm and gloriously hateful, commandeering attention even when silent. Brava.
Marcia Rodd’s Mary McCarthy is steely and calculating. Cavett cites the author’s touchstones as wit, lucidity, and indignation, all of which are ably embodied in the actress’s performance. Rodd also manages to show her character’s feminine side-McCarthy had a reputation as a thinking man’s seductress-think Pamela Harriman. Ruling principles are believable.
Rowan Michael Meyer (Ryan Hobbs) is engaging; stubborn, caring, and star struck. When he sails back a witty dig, it has just the right we both know what’s going on here tone. Deference comes trippingly off the tongue, but he’s never cowed. A wonderfully engineered balance.
Dick Cavett is, well, Dick Cavett, smart, quick and charming. Adlibbing added 15 minutes to running time. But then WHO else could play Dick Cavett?!
Director Jan Buttram etches her protagonists with fine detail. Interaction is solid all around. Physical staging offers both points of view without ever being fussy.
Roberta Maxwell (Hellman) and Marcia Rodd (McCarthy)
By 1979, the successful Lillian Hellman had written 12 plays, 5 screenplays, 4 books and endless magazine and newspaper pieces. She’d acted as an adapter, an editor and written the spoken dialogue for Candide. Prominent political beliefs included defense of Stalin’s Moscow Purge Trials, support of the anti-Franco Spanish Civil War, and refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. For 31 years, Hellman had a public love affair with the married author Dashiell Hammett.
Mary McCarthy was best known for forthright novels describing a woman’s lot in social milieus. The Group, a story of friends and roommates at Vassar, spoke to a generation, remaining on the New York Times Best Seller list for two years. It was subsequently made into a film. McCarthy wrote articles, taught and was consistently politically active. Actual disagreements with Hellman were ideological, though the ephemeral seemed to take over as time passed. She was married four times.
Photos by Kim T. Sharp
Abingdon Theatre Company presents
Hellman v. McCarthy by Brian Richard Mori
Directed by Jan Buttram
June Havoc Theater at Abingdon
312 West 36th Street
Through April 13, 2014