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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In Joan Mellen's dual biography Hellman and Hammett (see our review book review Lillian Hellman is quoted as calling biography "something of a racket" and expressing doubt that "anybody's life shows us much about their work." While Peter Feibleman's memory play Cakewalk which is based on his book, (Lilly, isn't a "racket", it certainly doesn't tell us much about her work. Like Hellman's own memoirs-- (she ignored her own quote to write three autobiographical books which were best-sellers and successfully shored up her career and perpetrated her own legend)--his reminiscences are more faction than fact.
As a dramatic evening Cakewalk moves crisply through ninety intermissonless minutes. It's punctuated with a host of funny one-liners that keep the audience amused and diverted from this question: Is there any point to these proceedings beyond the titillation of watching a woman of substantial accomplishments act out a soap opera love affair-friendship with a handsome but conflicted young man?
When Cakewalk began its long odyssey to the production now at the Variety Arts, it was much longer. The cuts and changes, (some last minute and off-the-record by Mike Nichols), no doubt account for the smooth pacing. They've also eliminated several concerns expressed by the two stars in a pre-opening interview. The complicated moving set that made Linda Lavin, (Lillian Hellman), anxious, is now a pristine, driftwood colored room with one short stairway leading from living room/kitchen to the bedrooms. And while Michael Knight's Cuff remains a bi-sexual character, his All My Children fans won't actually see Tad Martin kissing a man.
What about their performances? Lavin metamorphoses into the hard-boiled and often angry, chain smoking, hard-drinking Hellman--not beautiful, but having flair and a surprising sensual aura. She delivers her acerbic punch lines right on target. The scene after Lilly has a stroke, her face distorted and the panic showing through the ever-crusty facade, is devastating. Yet, the final portrait is that of Hellman the icon, without the complexities of a woman of enormous accomplishment and a near pathological personality. To quote from one of Hellman's autobiographical titles, the Lilly audiences come away with is "an unfinished woman." This two-dimensional quality is probably attributable more attributable to the script than the actressess' s shortcomings. Whichever, it's a flaw exacerbated by the less-than-splendid performance of her co-star. Knight, while absolutely wonderful to look at, fails to bring the needed fire and believability to the role of the young man troubled by sexual ambiguity, writers' block and the inability to develop mature relationships. Again, some of his difficulties can be traced to the script. For one thing, there are the numerous soliloquies he's called upon to address to the audience. Most are more pretentious than poetic or meaningful. Then there's the whole business of Hellman helping Cuff as Dashiell Hammett helped her. It's all about as believable as testimony from a proven perjurer. Cuff's sexual attraction to the aging Hellman is as unconvincing as her lust for him is palpable. If Joan Mellen's more distanced and impartial account of the affair is to be believed, the scene where this "sexual tension" is finally brought to fruition was strictly of the oral variety.
As already stated, Cakewalk offers up many funny lines and entertaining scenes. For example, the scrabble game in which we see the mischievous monster side of Hellman is genuinely amusing. At the performance we attended it drew not only laughter but applause. The scenes featuring a cast of peripheral characters, all done to perfection by Suzanne Grodner and Kirby Mitchell are also standouts.
In the final analysis, however, the evening's humor only underscores the fact that what could and should have been a fascinating play is a mere parapazzi peep at the splashiest edges of the Hellman story. Another recently opened one-woman "legend" play, Full Gallop, focused on an even narrower segment of its subject's life. Yet we came away with a fully rounded portrait of an eccentric but likeable flesh-and-blood person. Hellman was a much more complicated personality and her relationship with Peter Feibelman went deeper than Vreeland's temporary fall from power. Perhaps that's why the light-as-fluff Vreeland play works whereas it's no "cake walk" to contain Hellman's story within such a tightly circumscribed outline.