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A CurtainUp Review
Hellman V. McCarthy
By Elyse Sommer
Undeterred by the famous feud's previous lack of audience appeal, the Abingdon Theatre Company is back with another drama about the once headline making brouhaha. No puppets. No music. No box office magnet names. But Hellman vs. McCarthy does have its own secret weapon: Dick Cavett, the charming and intellectual former TV talk show host on whose PBS program the lengthy, costly and nasty feud erupted in 1980.
Though Cavett, like Hellman and McCarthy is no longer a household name, he's a spry and drolly amusing as ever seventy-eight year old. Richard Mori's play benefits enormously from having Cavett playing himself in the broadcast that frameworks this play. Even if you weren't around to bring fond memories of his many TV gigs (as many in the audience at the press preview I attended were), Cavett is an immediately winning presence — both during the replay of the fateful interview with Mary McCarthy and as narrator/commentator on the events surrounding and following McCarthy's explosive putdown.
Though Cavett is probably the ticket selling draw for this new production, there are other reasons Hellman vs. McCarthy is worth a trip to Abingdon's June Havoc Theater. The always excellent actress Roberta Maxwell is so good as Hellman that she actually makes us pity rather than despise thie angry, mean-spirited woman. Marcia Rodd is also excellent as the feisty McCarthy, who was financially ruined by Hellman's $2, 500,000 lawsuit that went on for four years, with no winners and resolution even after Hellman's death.
Mr. Mori has structured what sounds like a possible documentary about a famous trial, into a brisk, entertaining 90 minute drama that expands the broadcast scene to bring in Hellman as an active character. The recreated broadcast alternates with shifts to Hellman watching it in her Martha's Vinyard home with her often put upon but admiring caretaker Ryan (an endearingRowan Michael Meyer). The back and forth and sometimes overlapping segues to the various events fill us in on both Hellman's and McCarthy's lives, achievements and long simmering animosity. As directed by Jan Buttram it's all seamlessly realized on Andrew Lu's all white unit set that takes on different moods courtesy of Travis McHale's lighting.
Cavett pops back on stage regularly, as do the combatants' respective lawyers Peter Brouwer and Jeff Woodman). To their credit, neither lawyer is eager to capitalize from a lengthy, non-winnabe legal case, though Peter Brouwer's Lester Marshall who's Hellman's lawyer may well be willing to forget about princely fees to see the last of Hellman's often abusive treatment.
While Mori's script is mostly based on facts, Hellman vs. McCarthy's best scene is an imagined meeting at which McCarthy is supposed to apologize to Hellman in order for her to drop the suit. But, of course, the animosity is too deep which leaves it to Mr. Cavett to sum it all up in a terrific impromptu postscript. As he posits, maybe her continuing the wasteful battle actually fuelled the ailing Hellman's energies and extended her life, as McCarthy's inability to appease the litigious Hellman shortened hers. At any rate, I'm glad I found time to catch this modest but fun Off-Broadway play amidst the flood of new Broadway shows opening up.
Postscript: For more details about these accomplished women who should have been friends but wasted energy and resources that benefited no one there's an excellent piece about their "uncivil wars" at the following website: http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com/2008/08/uncivil-wars-lillian-hellman-vs-mary.html, and for another play about Hellman that had a brief run at the now defunct Variety Theater, see our review of Cakewalk