By Myra Chanin
I reluctantly shlepped over to the Clarion Theater on the East Side, somewhat intrigued by the subject of a play entitled Little Wars, written by someone I’d never heard of, in which a quintet of the most combative literary lionesses of the 20th Century guzzled gin and matched verbal wits in the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The other three? Dame Agatha Christie, an actual pen pal of Gertrude Stein’s; Dorothy Parker, uninvited Algonquin Round Table critic, poet and satirist who tagged along with her BFF Lillian Hellman. Did they all actually know each other? Yes. Were they ever together under the same roof? Only in McCasland’s imagination. I departed Little Wars two hours later totally enthralled by the depth of McCasland’s skill, craft, flair, research and world-class imagination. Wow! Whatta writer! Whatta cast! Whatta performance! Whatta everything!
The other inhabitant of the Stein/Toklas household is their ravaged German-Jewish housekeeper Bernadette, a young girl with an horrific past, then along comes “Mary,” who’s arrived a day early and is easily the most significant and arresting character in Little Wars. She’s not there to eat or chat with these selfish, self-involved women, but to collect a promised donation from Gertrude Stein to pay for false passports that will allow “Mary” to continue her undercover work of rescuing Jews from Hitler’s clutches.
Sound familiar? “Mary” appears in Hellman’s memoir Pentimento as Julia in a chapter that was later made into a film, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda as Julia and Hellman, old and dear friends and co-heroines, who undertake a dangerous mission of smuggling funds into Nazi Germany, with Lillian actually travelling with “Mary”/Julia as her “beard.” Others believed this story was fiction posing as fact and was derived from Hellman’s need for glory. The most significant other 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” a critique that created the literary lawsuit of the century. Little Wars is McCasland’s musing on the connection between “Mary”/Julia and Lillian Hellman. FYI, the first play he saw was Nora Ephron’s Imaginary Friends, in which Hellman and McCarthy reunite in hell and reflect on their decades-long antagonistic relationship.
According to her own autobiography and corroborated by others who knew her, “Mary”/Julia was actually Muriel Gardiner, a Princeton, NJ psychoanalyst who worked undercover, personally saving several hundred Jews from the Nazis. Gardiner once convinced a friend to smuggle a supply of American passports to her in her high fashion hat, but the friend wasn’t Hellman, whom she’d never met. Little Wars imagines the hours Hellman spends with “Mary”/Murial/Julia before she departs with the person who most needs and deserves rescuing.
Like Lillian Hellman, Steven Carl McCasland writes well-made plays, with interesting characters, intriguing subjects and a beginning, a middle and an end. McCasland is only 28, but he’s already written eight plays. Check out the theaterpizzazz reviews of two other plays by him from this same series – neat & tidy and Der Kararienvogel (the Canary). They’ve also been highly lauded by other reviewers. This is a playwright whose work you’ll want to see and keep on seeing. I certainly intend to.
Three cheers for the seven ladies who give first rate performances: Samantha Hoefer as the touching Bernadette; Kimberly Faye Greenberg, the now and future Fanny Brice, as the bossy, bitchy Lillian Hellman; Kim Rogers as the officious, British busybody Agatha Christie; Dorothy Weems as the caustic but sad Dorothy Parker. Particularly superb were Polly McKie as Gertrude Stein, Penny Lynn White as Alice B. Toklas and especially Kristen Gehling as “Mary”Julia/Muriel Gardiner for introducing what’s best about humanity into a setting where it was previously unseen. Kudos also to Directors Steven Carl McCasland and Cara Picone.
Little Wars is just a really good, absorbing and engrossing depiction of a complex social gathering in which everyone has her own, eventually revealed secret. The superficial dialog becomes very moving as life and death situations and secrets are discovered. I’m very 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.
photos by Samantha Mercado-Tudda