NEW YORK (AP) — Ask a leading question and hope for a juicy answer. That timeless tactic worked well for erudite TV talk show host Dick Cavett, especially when he sparked the famous American literary feud in which successful playwright Lillian Hellman sued fellow writer Mary McCarthy for calling her a liar.
McCarthy's instantly famous assertion about Hellman was uttered casually after a bit of hopeful prodding by Cavett on a January 1980 airing of his PBS show. Calling Hellman a dishonest writer, McCarthy further embellished with "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"
In "Hellman v. McCarthy", which opened Wednesday night off-Broadway at the intimate Abgindon Theatre, playwright Brian Richard Mori creates a lively theatrical imagining of how the two women, especially Hellman, might have behaved behind the scenes while the libel lawsuit ran its course until Hellman's death in June 1984.
Director Jan Buttram energetically blends the series of compact scenes in 90 fast-flying minutes that show an angry, ailing, viciously witty Hellman vindictively pursuing the lawsuit while lashing out at everyone around her.
The program clearly states that the play is "a work of fiction based on fact," yet history and artistic license blur together with the appearance of the real Dick Cavett, acting as emcee and playing himself. Genial and wry, the multiple Emmy Award-winner opens with some of his old familiar schtick, laughing along with the audience at his own hokey jokes. He provides commentary on the impact the lawsuit had on the literary world and on both women's health, perhaps partially drawn from his "I was there" perspective.
Hellman is played with caustic irascibility in a memorably bitchy performance by Drama Desk- and Obie Award-winner Roberta Maxwell. As depicted by Mori, Maxwell's perpetually sour Hellman can't utter a single sentence without slinging a barb, even to those who help and like her. When her longtime attorney (Peter Brouwer) starts a sentence, "As your friend for nearly 20 years..." she interrupts him with a stinging jab, "You're not my friend," adding "I pay you. I don't pay my friends."
In the other corner, Marcia Rodd's quietly skillful enactment of the evidently nicer McCarthy takes a bit of a back seat, until she gets to prove her mettle during a well-imagined verbal sparring scene with Hellman. Rodd's McCarthy gives as good as she gets, at one point snapping that Hellman's writing is "regurgitated melodrama."
Rowan Michael Meyer lends youthful poignancy to his character Ryan, a resilient and forgiving caregiver who heroically sticks with Hellman for years. Maxwell cleverly uses her character's failing health and frailty to make Hellman just slightly likable, despite her monstrously rude and imperious behavior.