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"Contentious Minds" The Mary McCarthy/Lillian Hellman Affair by Ben Pleasants. Act I

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Published on Mar 26, 2012

Contentious Minds

by Polly Warfield

Feb 6, 2002


In March 1995 Ben Pleasants' play of passionate polemics during the Spanish Civil War, The Hemingway-Dos Passos Wars, was a hit at Al's National Theatre, a venue in Downtown L.A. that no longer exists. Pleasants returns in similar vein with another searching study of politics and passion in the same literary milieu and with one of the same characters: a tough-talking, hard-drinking, chain-smoking Lillian Hellman.



The contentious minds are those of Hellman and her bete noire, adder-tongued novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, their clash a metaphor for the ideological conflict of post-WWII's pro-and anti-Soviet tempers. The Hellman vs. McCarthy feud lends sexy flavor to the conflict; Pleasants apparently concurs with Rudyard Kipling that "the female of the species is more deadly than the male." He parts company, however, on Kipling's assessment that "A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke." And he seems to reject Kipling's appraisal of a woman as merely "a rag and a bone and a hank of hair." That one would cause these gals to make the fur fly.



We see the fur fly in this depiction of what must be the longest catfight in history. The lively play deals with weighty matters, like the true nature of Stalin's tyrannical regime, which fellow travelers refused to acknowledge. Hellman proudly declares, "I am a dedicated Marxist." Whether it's a verbatim quote, McCarthy's famous comment definitely is--a nationwide audience heard her response when asked about Hellman's veracity: "Every word she writes is a lie. Including 'the' and 'and.'"



We see this 36-year feud get off to a good start at a Cape Cod cafe in 1946 and come full circle with another chance meeting in 1982 at the same cafe. The literary ladies' battle is one of words; McCarthy, well outweighed, wouldn't have had a chance otherwise, though it briefly threatens to become physical when a drunken and disorderly Hellman is ejected from a Paris bookstore. We don't know if this is fact or fiction, as we're not sure whether Laura, the play's third woman, is apocryphal. Anyway, she gives a good account of herself as winsomely played by Stephanie Stearns. Melissa Jones is a rip-roaring Hellman--who might be mistaken for Tallulah Bankhead. Petite Jennifer Gundy, in sharp contrast to Jones' flamboyance, looks like the Catholic schoolgirl she once was; don't let it fool you. Aging, ailing Hellman, coughing and hacking on the floor in the final scene, fails to answer McCarthy's savage, insistent demand, "Who was Julia?" No answer. And no settlement in Hellman's $2.25 million defamation suit against McCarthy. Both died before it could be brought to court.



Director Denise Gillman makes some puzzling directorial choices, as in business with McCarthy's umbrella--unless they were Pleasants' stage directions. The dialogue seems sharp and savvy, but it's hard to tell because it was hard to understand, whether due to echoes, acoustics, or another reason. Ronald E. Wingate enacts whatever male is needed. Superior costumes are by Gina Davidson; good sound and music selections are by Adam Arslanian. Interesting set and shadowy lighting are by, respectively, Douglas Tal Sanders and Margaret S. Tucker.



This noteworthy play about fascinating people is a rich repository of a definitive, fascinating era.



Jennifer Gundy...Mary McCarthy

Melissa Jones...Lillian Hellman

Stephanie Stearns...Laura

Ronald Wingate...Tom

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