Review: ‘Cakewalk’

When I'm dead they'll kill me," predicted Lillian Hellman, fully aware of the effect her boundlessly difficult personality had on even her closest friends. But on the evidence of "Cakewalk," Peter Feibleman's affectionate remembrance of his 20-odd-year, off-and-on relationship with the now-legendary playwright, one might be hard-pressed to understand why anyone would want even to slight Hellman , much less kill her. Reducing the author of "The Little Foxes" to a theatrical type --- the irascible but lovable grouch --- "Cakewalk" makes for an entertaining 90 minutes but does little if anything to explain her enduring hold on the public imagination, or (more damaging by far) her enduring hold on the affections of Feibleman.

When I’m dead they’ll kill me,” predicted Lillian Hellman, fully aware of the effect her boundlessly difficult personality had on even her closest friends. But on the evidence of “Cakewalk,” Peter Feibleman’s affectionate remembrance of his 20-odd-year, off-and-on relationship with the now-legendary playwright, one might be hard-pressed to understand why anyone would want even to slight Hellman , much less kill her. Reducing the author of “The Little Foxes” to a theatrical type — the irascible but lovable grouch — “Cakewalk” makes for an entertaining 90 minutes but does little if anything to explain her enduring hold on the public imagination, or (more damaging by far) her enduring hold on the affections of Feibleman.

Structured as a memory play, “Cakewalk” has Feibleman (here called Cuff, the nickname bestowed by Hellman) recalling in flashback his May-December affair with the much-older Lilly (Linda Lavin). The play has undergone considerable revamping since its premiere at the American Repertory Theater in 1993 (Marshall Mason is the credited director, although Mike Nichols recently doctored the production from a two-act to a one-act). “Cakewalk” shows its seams in the frequent (and not particularly effective) narration that has Cuff (Michael Knight) explaining things that, had the play been better, would have been shown. “What I didn’t know is that I might have to pay a price,” Cuff tells the audience about his relationship with the tempestuous Hellman.

But if a certain staginess gives “Cakewalk” a cut-and-paste feel, the theatricality of Hellman’s persona goes a long way in rescuing the play. Although Lavin bears no resemblance to the playwright — despite facial contortions (even before the character has a stroke), she is far too attractive to play a woman whose physical, uh, challenges were part of the personal myth — the actress nonetheless has a fine time with Hellman’s crotchety wit. “I’ll ring for the nurse,” grouses an ailing Hellman. “That should ensure us two hours of privacy.”

In a succession of quickly moving scenes (mostly set at or near Hellman’s Martha’s Vineyard beach house), “Cakewalk” covers the 20-year-plus relationship that began in the 1960s when Feibleman was a 28-year-old novice writer under the tutelage of the 50-ish Hellman. A writing summer at the beach house ends with an affair, a development that in real life (and with the real Hellman) must have appeared altogether more implausible (and therefore more intriguing) than that onstage (with the prettified Lillian). The occasionally saccharine sentiment of the narration is matched by Carly Simon’s sugary incidental music.

Sprinkled throughout the love-hate story are brief re-enactments of famous chapters in Hellman’s legend: her speech to the House Un-American Activities Committee, reminiscences of Dashiell Hammet, a college-tour lecture in which she (or, rather, Feibleman) glibly deflects accusations regarding her long-held defense of Stalin.

But this is a personal story, and quick dispensation of Hellman the Public Figure can be forgiven. What can’t be so easily excused is the startling lack of fresh insight into the private woman: The Hellman of “Cakewalk” could have been written by any admiring writer armed with a biography or two. This is especially odd given Feibleman’s 40-year knowledge of her — he first met the already-famous Hellman, a family friend, when he was 10 years old, a detail that surely must reveal something about the psychology of all involved.

“You’re still hiding something,” Lillian tells Cuff after reading an early draft of his novel. “Take it back and do it over.” She might have had the same reaction to his play.

But Feibleman apparently learned one thing well from his teacher: In a memorable speech he recalls Hellman’s genius for phony self-deprecation, her talent for pointing out her own tiny flaws to deflect attention from her self-serving myth-building. Cuff, although indulging in some bisexual philandering, comes off as the long-suffering martyr to Hellman’s dominating personality. One can only suspect that, in real life, he gained as much as he gave. His final admission that he loved Hellman all along comes off not as revelation but, well, phony self-deprecation.

Knight, best known for his long-running role on television’s “All My Children ,” gives a likable performance that’s largely responsible for making Cuff as appealing as he is (and stripped to his shorts, Knight’s buff Cuff is very appealing, further evidence of Feibleman’s own myth-building). Although he indulges in just a bit too much facial mugging, and isn’t quite believable as the over-50 Feibleman, Knight holds up his end of this theatrical pas de deux with Lavin’s Hellman. (Various secondary roles are handled with versatility by Suzanne Grodner and Kirby Mitchell).

For her part, Lavin walks a tightrope, delightfully playing up the comedy while not shying away from Hellman’s more abrasive side. Still, neither she nor the script fully delves into the darkest recesses of the personality (for starters, Hellman’s nearly pathological habit of lying is never really addressed). By the time she makes her final post-death appearance, in Hellman’s famous Blackglama mink, the late, controversial memoirist has been transformed into the female equivalent of all those lovable old coots played in countless movies by Walter Matthau. If “Cakewalk” ever makes it to the screen, a smart producer might retitle it “Grumpy Old Playwrights.”

Cakewalk

Production

A Julian Schlossberg, Meyer Ackerman and Donna Knight presentation of a play in one act by Peter Feibleman. Directed by Marshall W. Mason. Incidental music by Carly Simon, produced and performed by Teese Gohl.

Crew

Set, Michael McGarty; costumes, Laura Crow; lighting, Tharon Musser; sound, Randy Freed; casting, Stuart Howard, Amy Schecter; associate producers, Georgia Frontiere, Michael Winter. Opened Nov. 6, 1996, at the Variety Arts Theater. Reviewed Nov. 4; 479 seats; $ 45 top. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

With

Cast: Linda Lavin (Lilly), Michael Knight (Cuff), Suzanne Grodner (Women), Kirby Mitchell (Men).
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