If you are old enough to remember Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s browbeating of prominent intellectuals in the 1950s, you may be excused for thinking that the play “Hellman v. McCarthy” refers to the Wisconsin Senator’s vicious attack on the political views of the celebrated playwright Lillian Hellman.
That was the devastating inquisition in which Ms. Hellman, in refusing to respond to McCarthy’s insistent questions about her participation in what was at that time considered “radical” activism, famously remarked, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions … ”
But that is the wrong McCarthy. The McCarthy that playwright Brian Richard Mori is referring to is Mary.
Mary McCarthy, a celebrated author and critic, was only seven years younger than Lillian Hellman, but they lived in two different worlds. While both flirted with Communism in the 1930s — Hellman, by her own account, admitted to having been a “casual member” of the Party — they split their loyalties when Hellman supported the faction that favored Stalin. McCarthy, who moved in “fellow-traveling” Communist circles in the early ’30s, became a staunch anti-Stalinist later in the decade and favored Stalin’s enemy, Leon Trotsky.
Socially they were worlds apart as well. While both authored numerous books and plays, McCarthy had many friendships with members of New York society, even after she scandalized them with the reports of their hijinks in her book, “The Company She Keeps.” Hellman was friendly with many of the movers and shakers of the day, including writer Dashiell Hammett, with whom she kept up an affair “off and on” for 31 years. She also had numerous lovers, as did McCarthy, but McCarthy wound up marrying four of them.
One thing that the two women did have in common, however, was that they were heartily disliked by many of their contemporaries. McCarthy for her acerbic comments and essays, and Hellman because she was a cantankerous, demanding individual.
Their mutual dislike came to a head, however, when McCarthy, on Dick Cavett’s popular television talk show, remarked that “every word that (Hellman) writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” Whereupon Hellman sued her (as well as Dick Cavett and PBS) for libel and demanded 2.5 million dollars in compensation.
At this point, Cavett, who had introduced the play earlier with a witty monologue, a few jokes, and his usual charm, reappeared to shepherd the principals through the preparations for the trial. (And by the way, he has aged handsomely and looks better than ever.)
The lawsuit went on for years while McCarthy searched for incidents that would prove that Hellman really was a liar. And, unfortunately, there were quite a few examples. For instance, the heroic story in “Pentimento” about Hellman ferrying money into Germany for “Julia,” which Hellman claimed was autobiographical and true, proved not to be either and laid open the question of whether there actually was a Julia at all.
In the end, the suit was finally dismissed in 1984, when Hellman died. But it makes for a wonderful play, superbly directed by Howard Storm and made even more wonderful by the appearance of Marcia Rodd as Mary McCarthy and Dick Cavett as Dick Cavett.
But special kudos have to be given to Flora Plumb as the crotchety Lillian Hellman and M. Rowan Meyer as her marvelously obsequious manservant, Ryan.
“Hellman v. McCarthy” will be presented at Theatre 40 through Feb. 28 on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Feb. 14 and 21 and Feb. 8, 15, and 22.
Theatre 40 is located at 241 S. Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills, on the Beverly Hills High School campus. There is ample free parking beneath the theater.
For reservations, call (310) 364-3606 or go to www.theatre40.org.