Contentious Minds
REVIEW by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES-- Ben Pleasants is a playwright with a decidedly literary
and political bent. In his previous work, THE HEMINGWAY/DOS PASSOS
WARS, which was a 1999 hit, he dealt with the ideological and personal
clash between novelists Hemingway and Dos Passos over the issue of
Stalin's betrayal of the Left during the Spanish Civil War.

Now Pleasants has returned with a new drama, CONTENTIOUS MINDS: THE MARY McCARTHY/LILLIAN HELLMAN AFFAIR, which also deals with the battle between two major writers of opposite political views. McCarthy and Hellman are played by Jennifer Gundy and Melissa Jones, respectively.
The other two characters, Laura (Stephanie Stearns) and Tom (Ronald E.
Wingate), are more or less foils to McCarthy and Hellman, whose
relationship spanned the years between 1946 and 1982.


Hellman, author of such plays as THE CHILDREN'S HOUR and LITTLE FOXES and a best-selling book, Julia, was a dedicated leftist who stuck to her beliefs even in the blacklist years when she suffered grievously at the
hands of the extreme right. Mary McCarthy, who was ten years younger--
and more beautiful and appealing--grew up in awe of Hellman, a woman who
slugged her way to the top of the male-dominated theatre world. But when the revelations about Stalin's prison empire broke and Hellman refused to denounce not only Stalin but communism itself, McCarthy's love turned to hate. (By then she was a successful novelist herself).

McCarthy also accused Hellman of fabricating the supposedly true story
of Julia, a wartime resistance saga. After that, she continued to attack
Hellman at every opportunity, culminating in a 1979 TV interview during
which she charged that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the."

Hellman filed a $2.5 million defamation suit against Dick Cavett, The
Educational Broadcasting Company and Mary McCarthy. She also defended
her right as a writer to construct fiction by using the time-honored tradition of telling lies. As for her political beliefs, she wasn't about to apologize for them either; they were a means to a worthy end--the defeat of fascism.

CONTENTIOUS MINDS is a play of ideas and while Pleasants certainly
dissects Hellman and McCarthy's mindset, he fails to keep deepening and
sharpening his insights. Instead, the same thing happens in every scene: McCarthy attacks Hellman for being morally and politcally suspect; Hellman bellows and rants at her for being naive, wimpish and reactionary. Ideas and opinions are exchanged, but they vary little over the course of the play.

What hurts the drama as well are the physical characteristics of the actors. Jones is big and strong, and plays Hellman as a virago. Gundy is much smaller and daintier: she is constantly overwhelmed by her loud-voiced opponent. It's like watching a bully beat up a shrimp--not much fun.

Director Denise Gillman must be faulted for the play's miscasting and
Pleasants for the repetitiveness and shallowness of the text. Perhaps they can put their heads together on a rewrite that would give Contentious Minds the stature and importance it deserves. (Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd; call (310) 289- 2999).