They were two of the brightest and most articulate women of their era. And they hated each other intensely. Who knows when and how Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy became enemies? McCarthy claimed that the basis was political: Hellman continued to support Stalinist Russia long after the dictator’s atrocious treatment of Russian dissenters became public knowledge. It’s unlikely they would ever have been friends, though. Hellman was a writer and McCarthy one of her harshest critics.
Their prickly relationship came to a head in 1979, when — in an interview on “The Dick Cavett Show” — McCarthy denounced Hellman as a bad and dishonest writer and brazenly added, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” Hellman, who happened to be watching, called her lawyer and filed a $2.25 million lawsuit that almost ruined both of them.
That suit and the antagonism that fueled it are the subjects of Brian Richard Mori’s alternately scathing and witty “Hellman v. McCarthy,” making its regional premiere in a smart and smart-mouthed production by Pygmalion Productions in Salt Lake City.
Cavett acts as the play’s narrator, or perhaps more accurately the ringmaster of the circus that develops between these “two literary lionesses past their prime.” McCarthy claims she “always tells the truth” and is entitled to express her opinion, but Hellman counters, “Someone who slanders another has no right to stand behind the Bill of Rights.”
The controversy ultimately raises larger questions: Can writers distort the truth for literary effect? How far can one go in publicly criticizing another? It also seems ironic that the woman who staunchly defended First Amendment rights when she told the House Un-American Activities Committee that “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions” would later deny them to a fellow writer.
“Hellman v. McCarthy” is a talky play, but the talk is consistently clever, and Mori’s portraits of the two women are entertaining and larger than life. He also keeps the action moving by cutting cinematically back and forth between Hellman and McCarthy as they state their case and react to each other. Lane Richins’ crisp direction and Jesse Portillo’s sharply defined lighting also provide momentum.
Reb Fleming’s Hellman and Barbara Gandy’s McCarthy are well-matched adversaries. Fleming adeptly balances Hellman’s physical fragility with her caustic wit, and Gandy’s McCarthy has the tenaciousness of a pit bull. Allen Smith gives Dick Cavett a suave, slightly mischievous swagger. William Richardson alternates between being supportive and outspokenly critical as Hellman’s long-suffering nurse, Ryan. Jeffrey Owen and Jeremy Chase play the two lawyers with a mix of practicality and frustration.
Thomas George’s television-show set with its garish gold streamers gives the play a surreal air: Is what we’re watching life or entertainment? Michael Nielsen’s period costumes with their suits and fur coats make the two women look like fading fashion queens.
“Hellman v. McCarthy” walks an interesting line between biography and satire. What emerges from the mix is a sad and funny portrait of two fascinating women who were too much alike to ever see eye-to-eye.