Theater Review: ‘Hellman v. McCarthy’

Literary lionesses fight it out
March 29, 2014 Updated: March 27, 2014

NEW YORK—This fictional work based on fact deals with the notorious lawsuit brought by noted writer Lillian Hellman against writer Mary McCarthy.

The suit stemmed from a comment made by McCarthy on Dick Cavett’s TV interview show on PBS back in 1979. McCarthy had remarked that everything Hellman wrote “was a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

Incensed by this insult, which Hellman insisted could have a deleterious effect on her income, she set out to bring McCarthy to justice. There ensued a lawsuit for slander that went on for close to four years, ending only in Hellman’s death.

Playwright Brian Richard Mori has chosen an initial lighthearted approach to his topic. He bookends the play utilizing the talents of the actual Dick Cavett as narrator—yes, that Dick Cavett of TV talk shows, who has aged nicely and still possesses that singular deep voice and witty, winning ways.

When Cavett opens the performance by talking directly to the audience about one thing and another, skirting the more serious issues of the play, the audience settles down to the expectation of possibly light entertainment.

But after this audience warm-up, reality intercedes with a display of a cranky harridan, Lillian Hellman (effectively portrayed by Roberta Maxwell), outlining her rage and subsequent plan of attack against her foe, Mary McCarthy.

Hellman’s companion for most of the play is her young male nurse, Ryan Hobbs (played beautifully by Rowan Michael Meyer). Hellman, who often uses Hobbs as a whipping boy, bounces her ideas off him, as well as cheats against him at Scrabble.

We meet Mary McCarthy (Marcia Rodd), who is younger than Hellman and a rather pompous, self-assured intellectual. She sticks to her guns and vows never to give in to Hellman’s legal assault, although McCarthy’s lawyer, Burt Fielding (Jeff Woodman), fears a negative outcome for his client.

Hellman’s attorney, Lester Marshall (the elegant Peter Brouwer), suggests that the matter isn’t worth pursuing. In addition to expending large sums of money in legal fees, the time and energy to be spent would make serious inroads on the elderly writer’s health. But Hellman stubbornly pushes on.

Only one scene toward the end of the play features an imagined encounter with both women, who attempt to tear one another apart intellectually. Politics are a subject—both women are liberals but with different mindsets. Also discussed are the men in their lives—Hellman had a long-term relationship with writer Dashiell Hammett; McCarthy was married four times.

The lawsuit comes to an end only with the death of Hellman at age 79. McCarthy is to die about 4 years later, age 77.

The pre-opening preview I attended could have used tighter pacing. There was effective direction overall by Jan Buttram—but perhaps not all the kinks had been worked out.

Also, Mr. Cavett was given to ad libs in his opening narration, which possibly lengthened the proceedings. But that’s a minor quibble; he’s an attractive performer.

The entire cast is top-notch. Ms. Maxwell readily conveyed a sense of what the real Hellman must have been like. Ms. Rodd’s self-assuredness made an effective foil against Maxwell.

Young Rowan Michael Meyer not only stood his ground against the older players but added to the effectiveness of the production. As attorneys, both Peter Brouwer and Jeff Woodman brought appropriate stature to their roles.

Perhaps not as dramatic as it might be, the content of “Hellman v. McCarthy” is sure to interest those who are intrigued by both the period in question as well as its spicy, aggressive participants.

All is played against Andrew Lu’s simple but sumptuous all-white set, which serves as an effective backdrop for the occasional colorful effects of Travis McHale’s lighting.

Hellman v. McCarthy
Abingdon Theatre Company
June Havoc Theatre
312 West 36th Street
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: 866-811-4111
Closes: April 13

Diana Barth publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. For information: diabarth@juno.com.