SALT LAKE CITY — On January 24, 1980, literary critic and author Mary McCarthy appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and inadvertently began the biggest literary cat-fight in modern history. The events surrounding this little-remembered celebrity feud feed the story for Hellman v. McCarthy by Brian Richard Mori at PYGmalion Productions. The atmosphere is set before the show begins as the waiting audience is slowly turned into a “live studio audience” complete with the show director cracking jokes to warm up the crowd. Soon, Dick Cavett himself (played by Allen Smith) makes his entrance, introduces Mary McCarthy (Barbara Gandy), and the story unfolds.
In Mori’s script, a physically ailing Lillian Hellman (Reb Fleming) ends a game of Scrabble with her ever-patient nurse, Ryan (William Richardson), and looks for distraction on television. It is only through this almost random action that McCarthy’s appearance on Cavett’s show is discovered and the statement that begat a $2.5 million lawsuit is heard. After Cavett innocuously asks McCarthy who she believes to be overrated writers are and John Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck are briefly mentioned, McCarthy vehemently calls out Hellman for being not only overrated, but down right dishonest, ending with “I said once in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Naturally, Hellman won’t tolerate this kind of attack on her reputation and her lawyer is quickly called.
Director Lane Richins smartly presents the story on the “public” stage by using the glitzy talk show facade (designed by Thomas George) as the setting for the dramatic action. This makes the developing plot a clever metaphor as two public figures literally play out conflict while on public display. In this age of celebrity beefs via Twitter, this presentational style makes one wonder how much dissension is authentic and how much is strictly for public consumption. Under Richins capable direction, the ensemble creates moments that crackle with tension and surprise with humor. Smith’s interpretation of Cavett is charming, and he fulfills his duty as Greek chorus/narrator with a warm conversational tone and aplomb. Gandy plays McCarthy as an imperious academic, alight with righteous indignation and yet imbued with humor. This is clearest during an almost nonverbal exchange with her lawyer during a deposition scene. Under the watchful eye of Burt Fielding (Jeremy Chase), McCarthy defends her statement and Gandy conveys fervor, desire for approval, a mischievous glint of pleasure, and defiance all within a few lines and looks. I think this is the best performance of Gandy’s to date.
Fleming has the richer role in Hellman, and she is delightfully cantankerous and foul-mouthed, uttering curses unexpectedly and with relish. Fleming unapologetically shows Hellman’s physical decline which is made more poignant by the contrast of her legal fight for her reputation. I was longing for these two titan-like characters to finally meet face to face. When they finally do, the sparks and the insults fly. Providing a grounding force for the action are Chase and Jeffrey Owen, the latter playing Hellman’s lawyer, Lester Marshall. These two best represent the impact of the four-year ordeal and effectively remind the viewer of the ridiculousness of the whole battle. Chase is reserved and slightly rumpled but endearing, giving McCarthy’s case a sense of underdog likability. Owen is every inch a power player, but is still stung when Hellman corrects him about their being friends; she doesn’t pay her friends. These two, as well as Richardson’s turn as Ryan, connect the piece to reality. As Ryan, Richardson represents how much the world has changed since they heyday of American literature. Ryan sits entranced as Hellman recounts time spent with her lover of 30 years, Dashiell Hammett, and is understandably wide-eyed (and embarrassing) in the presence of the well-known Cavett. This innocence in the face of fame and ignorance in regard to the perceived stakes for reputation perfectly illustrates how this “legendary” feud can remain largely unremembered.
In addition to George’s glamorous set, Jesse Portillo’s lighting highlights the inter-cut scenes with a quality reminiscent of a 35 mm film documentary. Michael Nielson’s tasteful vintage costumes provide genuine texture and the play is further supported by Mikal Troy Klee’s sound design.
The only weakness of the production was the script itself. While brisk and entertaining, it felt skeletal and shallow at times. This is most evident during the long-awaited and imagined meeting between the dueling Hellman and McCarthy. While the meeting was well-acted and full of fireworks, the actual meat of the conversation felt insubstantial, and I was left unsatisfied. The cast and creative team more than make up for this lack of substance, but one can’t help but imagine what could have been if the script had matched the quality of the production.
Hellman v. McCarthy is an adventurous take on a slice of the literary and celebrity past. It is fast paced and well done. Audiences will be drawn into a slightly lurid, slightly preposterous world that proves the adage “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”