Celebrity feuds are only as exciting as the personalities that fuel them, but it also helps to have a little media exposure. In 1980, long before internet or CNN, the literary critic Mary McCarthy called the Broadway playwright Lillian Hellman a liar and a second-rate writer on the Dick Cavett Show. It’s not sure how many people were tuning in to the pre-taped broadcast on PBS, but Hellman was one of them and she promptly filed a $2.25 million lawsuit against McCarthy, Cavett and PBS.
Brian Richard Mori’s new play Hellman v. McCarthy is a straightforward re-enactment of the incident’s main events, beginning with that fateful taping and ending with Hellman’s death in 1984, with one difference. While the lawsuit, its plaintiff and principal defendant have faded from the memories of most, they remain vivid yet for the very much alive and kicking Dick Cavett, who, at the spry old age of 78, plays himself in the production and narrates throughout with his singular dry wit and unassuming charm. Even for those too young to remember his once famous talk show or his comic talents (as a writer for Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show”), Cavett alone is worth the price of a ticket. He still knows how to hold an audience with his conversational banter and self-deprecating humor, and we are caught in the spell of this consummate performer, from start to finish.
Cavett is seconded however by some formidable talent. As the foul-mouthed, bitter, manipulative, yet fragile Hellman, Roberta Maxwell puts the audience firmly in her corner against Marcia Rodd’s equally formidable, fiercely independent yet more rational McCarthy. Both actresses are in their seventies and bring the experience and conviction of their illustrious careers to fleshing out these two giants of mid-20th century American literature. As Ryan, Hellman’s tirelessly optimistic and good-natured male nurse, Rowan Michael Meyer is the perfect counterpoint to Hellman/Maxwell’s take-no-hostages approach to friends and enemies alike as well as to Cavett’s purely cerebral humor. Andrew Lu’s all white set is the monochromatic backdrop to these firebrands, letting their true colors paint themselves boldly across the production. Jan Buttram directs the proceedings with lawyerly expediency while giving Cavett room for some unscripted interaction with the audience.
Without giving away too much of what is public knowledge anyway, the Hellman v. McCarthy suit ended badly for everyone involved, irreparably compromising the health, careers and finances of both writers. Cavett was dropped as a defendant but the case’s regrettable consequences have evidently stuck with him. The production reads as both a historic document and a cautionary tale. It was pride that paved the fall of Hellman and McCarthy. It’s a story that even the humorist in Cavett doesn’t find funny at all and a lesson he would rather we not forget.