First Nighter: Check Out 'Hellman v. McCarthy,' 'Red Velvet,' 'Heathers'

On January 20, 1980 Mary McCarthy, never known to mince words in print or in person, was asked on Dick Cavett's PBS talk show whom she considered overrated writers. After a moment's thought, Lillian Hellman came to her mind. Of the playwright-memoirist, she blurted a few damning comments, including the sentence "I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

According to Hellman v. McCarthy, now at the June Havoc, the ailing, failing Hellman was tuned in -- with male companion Ryan Hobbs at her side -- and was so incensed she launched a libel suit for the kind of money McCarthy wasn't able to pay.

The incident, which delighted literati everywhere, titillated Brian Richard Mori so much that he's concocted a brisk and pithy 90-minuter in which Roberta Maxwell plays the foul-mouthed Hellman, Marcia Rodd plays the sharp-tongued McCarthy and Dick Cavett plays his quick-witted self with that typical form of self-effacement that so often comes across as self-aggrandizement.

On an extremely attractive and adaptable set by Andrew Lu, the focal figures -- often joined by Ryan (Rowan Michael Meyer) and the women's lawyers (Peter Brouwer and Jeff Woodman) -- go at each other as the legal suit drags on. It only ends at Hellman's 1984 death with nothing resolved, but much time, energy and cash spent. Plenty of gossip about their writers' circle is bandied, including quips about the men in their lives and in each other's life. That's certainly good fun, although Edmund Wilson, from whom McCarthy was divorced, wouldn't have enjoyed it.

Deftly directed throughout by Jan Buttram, Hellman v. McCarthy has its best scene when, supposedly having agreed to apologize, McCarthy visits the libeled(?) party and with smart lines fired like buckshot, the stated purpose is nowhere near achieved.

At its finish, Cavett notes that the previous exchange is completely made up, but how nice Mori included it. Whether Mori wrote all of Cavett's lines may not be, since so much of what the host-raconteur says sounds like the sorts of things he often extemporized in front of the camera. When the action ends, Cavett also takes a few questions and remains generous about that as well. In his instance, the "and"s and "the"s are as funny as anything else he utters.
Ira Aldridge was a 19th-century black American actor who became famous on the British stage and is depicted as such in the opening scene of Red Velvet, now at St. Ann's Warehouse with the dynamic Adrian Lester in the title role.

Though Aldridge had been building a reputation in the English hinterlands, he was little known around London, where one fateful night he was abruptly brought in to replace the indisposed Edmund Kean as Othello. It's Aldridge's troubled experience there to which playwright Lolita Chakrabarti flashes back for the bulk of her powerful grip of a play.

Engaged by entrepreneur Pierre Laporte (Eugene O'Hare) without his alerting the other members of the cast -- one of them Kean's bitter, untalented son Charles (Oliver Ryan) -- Aldridge isn't immediately taken to the company bosom. The idea of a black actor assuming the role of the Moor set some of them back. Not, however, leading lady Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), who's impressed with Aldridge's more naturalistic approach to the role.

It's clear that the evolution of acting styles is one of Chakrabarti's interests, though she's subtle about it as Aldridge deals with the other players, with his adoring wife Margaret (Rachel Finnegan) and in the first and last scene with a neophyte Polish reporter (also Finnegan) who's come to interview -- if not hound -- the now aging actor.

Perhaps needless to say, racism is another theme. It's thrown into great relief when the reviews of Aldridge's first London night come in. While the audience is led to believe, undoubtedly rightly, that Aldridge was a masterful Othello, the critics at the time didn't see it that way. The result is a fiery confrontation between good friends Aldridge and Laporte that's potent acting dynamite.

As the expertly crafted play unfolds under Indhu Rubasingham's firm hand, Lester gets several opportunities to demonstrate how Aldridge might have gone about the Othello assignment, and he's room-shaking. Ironically, after doing the play at North London's Tricycle Theatre, Lester played Othello in a contemporary production at the National Theatre's Olivier and was Shakespearean perfection there, too. Just say he knows what to do with the hallowed lines, whatever the circumstances
Girls bullying other girls has been frequent subject matter for a while but was newer in 1988 when Heathers, for which Daniel Waters wrote the screenplay, was released.

Well, Heathers fans, Waters has allowed his tangy high-school-high-jinks piece to be adapted for the musical stage by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe, and he has no reason to regret his decision as well as that of, you assume, New World Pictures and Cinemarque Entertainment.

Once again -- now at New World Stages -- three well-dressed, snobby girls named Heather (Jessica Keenan Wynn, Elle McLemore, Alice Lee) rule the school roost when uncertain about herself Veronica Sawyer (Barrett Wilbert Weed) seeks to join their closed unit and thereby is expected to turn her back on pariah pal Martha (Katie Ladner).

Remaining tentative about her new alliances, Veronica befriends standoffish newcomer J. D. (Ryan McCarten), who turns out to be, of all things, a clever serial killer. Among his victims are dim-witted but abusive football heroes Ram (Jon Eidson) and Kurt (Evan Todd), who are framed to look like gay lovers dead as the result of a suicide pact.

All the nasty deeds get carried out -- and the plot's cock-eyed attitude towards what's moral and what's not is mooted -- while Andy Fickman directs with spirit and the spritely Murphy-O'Keefe songs proliferate. The dances that go with many of tunes and are choreographed by Marguerite Derricks receive bright-eyed performances by the featured characters and their chanting-terping classmates chorus.

Anthony Crivello and Daniel Cooney play the dead boys' fathers and get to sing "My Dead Gay Son," during which revelations about those dads come hilariously to light. While that's the funniest ditty in the score, others also have toe-tapping, finger-snapping, rock-oriented allure.

N. B.: Anyone for whom four-, seven- and 12-letter obscenities are a problem might be warned away from Heathers, which start to finish has a very contemporary attitude towards sexuality and sexual practices. No need to go into the specifics that the show itself delights in. It's enough to say that there appears to be a new vulgarity ripening in today's theater, and Heathers is decidedly eager to add to it.