Little Wars – A Really Big Deal

By Myra Chanin. . .

(L-R) Catherine Russell, Sarah Solemani, Linda Basset, Natasha Karp, Juliet Stevenson, Sophie Thompson, Debbie Chazen (Photo: John Brannoch) . . .

In May of 2015, I reluctantly shlepped over to a seedy Theater on the not quite lower East Side to see a play by a 28-year-old, prolific off-off Broadway playwright. Two hours later I extricated myself from a seat that crippled me, indifferent to everything but the depth and magic of Steven Carl McCasland’s skill, craft, flair, research, ingenuity and imagination. His Little Wars was a really big deal.

Since then, Little Wars, has been performed to great reviews in Bermuda, Costa Rica, Minneapolis, Arizona and most recently in London, where this modest production made the Guardian’s Top 10 best plays list. Even a global pandemic was unable to stop the power of Little Wars. Now, an excellent rehearsed reading by its prize-winning London cast can be screened from February 1until February 14.

I have just finished watching seven extraordinary actors celebrating seven extraordinary 20th century women via McCasland’s intimate, bitchy, funny and witty fly-on-the-wall view of a dinner party at the Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas hideaway in the French Alps on June 22, 1940, the evening Marshall Petain surrendered to Hitler. I found the streamed rehearsed reading even more enchanting. The London company is so extraordinary that I felt blessed to be able to stream this production as much as I liked.

The characters include the most combative/irritating/drunk literary lionesses of the 20th Century western hemisphere, guzzling gin and matching verbal wits at the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and their young housekeeper Bernadette, a German Jew with a horrific past. Dame Agatha Christie, an actual pen pal of Gertrude Stein’s, has been invited for dinner, but instead, a woman named Mary arrives a day early to collect a pledged donation from Gertrude Stein that will cover the cost of three counterfeit passports and bribes to allow Mary to help three more Jews escape from Hitler’s clutches.

The next two arrivals were invited to dinner by Agatha Christie without a word to either of the hosts. Enter Dorothy Parker, Algonquin Round Table critic, poet and satirist and Parker’s BFF, the prize- winning playwright Lillian Hellman. Stein and Hellman have a strong love/hate relationship tinged with jealousy and disrespect. Did Stein and Hellman ever come together under the same roof? Only in McCasland’s imagination.

If some details sound familiar – – In Hellman’s memoir Pentimento, a character like Mary called Julia and Lillian are co-heroines, smuggling funds into and smuggling Jews out of Nazi Germany. Many believe Hellman stole Mary’s life, turned it into fiction posing as fact to serving Hellman’s need for glory. The most significant many was Hellman’s literary rival Mary McCarthy, who declared on the Dick Cavett Show that “every word Hellman writes is a lie, including and and the,” – an opinion that created the literary lawsuit of the century. Mary/Julia was actually Muriel Gardiner, a Princeton, NJ psychiatrist who worked undercover and saved hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Little Wars imagines the hours the women spent together before Mary departed on her rescue mission.

Like Lillian Hellman, Steven Carl McCasland writes well-made plays, with fascinating characters, intriguing plots and a very satisfying beginning, middle and an end. His plays have been highly lauded by many reviewers. His lines spout insights that belong in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

Now back to basics. Kudos to director Hannah Chissick for this very absorbing rehearsed reading. She’s placed every actor in her own frame, which allows the viewer to see the rich talent and the nuances of every performer close up. Three cheers also for the seven actors who gave Five Star performances. Which one deserved a best of breed? Whichever one was delivering McCasland’s dialog.

Natasha Karp was incredibly subtle as the elusive and ultimately touching housemaid, Bernadette, whose revelations about the horror she’d survived during a Nazi assault were made even more heart-wrenching because her delivery was detailed, factual but understated.

Catherine Russell transformed Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s long time darling, into a gentle, charming but outspoken eternal beloved whose lips tasted like venison the first time Gertrude kissed her.

Linda Bassett’s Gertrude Stein, worried about forgetting the past, was perfectly multifaceted, kind but bitchy, an incredibly complex genius whose monumental rudeness hid her even greater responsibility and compassion.

Sarah Solemani was a calm, punctual Mary/Muriel, a rescuer whose life was dominated by schedules, elusive when hiding information yet capable of blatantly rebuffing insincere and useless offers of help.  

Debbie Chazan, as a caustic but sad, lip-sticked, rouged, doll-faced Dorothy Parker was lively but less interesting as a drunk than as she appears in her published works.

Juliet Stevenson’s Lillian Hellman was narcissistic, bossy, self-serving and phony, who might easily steal a more worthy life and pass it off as hers. The love/hate relationship between Hellman and Stein was absorbing.

Finally, Dame Agatha Christie, the stiff upper lip version of a detail-oriented yenta, the mother of Hercules Poirot, arrived and asks question after question until she finds out exactly what is going on.

Little War is just a really good, absorbing and engrossing depiction of a complex social gathering in which everyone has her own, eventually revealed secret. The acting is incredible. Many of the observations deserve to be carved in stone. Even the superficial dialog becomes very moving as life and death situations and secrets are discovered. Everyone has a secret. A husband’s infidelity. An abortion. Being considered abnormal.

I was also impressed with McCasland’s fascination, understanding and grasp of history and so touched by his empathy for the Jews trapped by the Nazis that I’m convinced if he ever actually checks out his genetic coding, somewhere in there he’ll find Spinoza’s DNA.

I highly recommend you download, stream and see this filmed production which I spent an evening watching and an entire morning thinking about. It’s historical. It’s amusing. It’s scary. It’s honest. It’s very moving and worth remembering.

I plan to hear those delicious actors deliver McCasland’s interplay one more time! McCasland’s art improves on life and if these women never actually admitted their rancor and regrets, they really should have.

McCasland’s art improves on life. If these women didn’t actually say these things, they really should have.

The cast and creative team of this production in collaboration with Southwark’s Union Theatre are raising money to aid Women for Refugee Women.

Available February 1 thru 14 at Broadway On Demand, on the web, mobile, Apple and Android app store, AppleTV, Roku, Chromecast, and Amazon Fire TV.

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