by Lynn on February 13, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Little Wars streams until Feb. 14 at

Written by Stephen Carl McCasland.

Directed by Hannah Chissick

Cast: Linda Bassett

Debbie Chazen

Natasha Karp

Catherine Russell

Sarah Solemani

Juliet Stevenson

Sophie Thompson

This is a staged, streamed reading and considering the cast and the subject matter, is worth your time.

Little Wars by Stephen Carl McCasland is about an imagined dinner-party in 1940, at the atelier of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris and a guest list of celebrated writers and a mysterious woman who is also there.

I get the sense that Alice planned the dinner party because she knew who was coming and Gertrude didn’t. Also there was one person who was invited that Gertrude could not abide. The guests were: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman, who Gertrude could not stand. When Gertrude found out about the dinner party she was incensed because she didn’t want to share her scotch with anybody but Alice. When Gertrude found out Lillian Hellman was coming (or as Gertrude pronounced it: Lily-ANNE), she was furious. She refers to Hellman as “Lillian F***ing Hellman. And to make matters perfectly aggravating Lillian was bringing an uninvited guest, Dorothy Parker.

There was another unexpected guest. That would be a person named Mary. She was expected the next day but matters changed and she came a day early, which surprised Gertrude and Alice. She was an American who was working to smuggle Jews out of Europe. Gertrude and Alice were providing money to buy passports for three Jews that Mary was going to smuggle out.

When Mary learned of the dinner party she was prepared to leave and go to the train station where she would stay overnight and then be on her way with the people she was saving. But of course for a neat plot twist playwright Steven Carl McCasland had Gertrude invite her to stay for the party and then overnight at their house. Bernadette the house maid began plying everybody with drink, usually scotch.

The conceit is this: here we have a party of very strong, very opinionated women writers often wrangling amongst themselves; sparks flew; war is imminent; Hitler is a threat; and three of these women we know are Jewish: Gertrude Stein, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker. (Actually Dorothy Parker was half-Jewish-I don’t know what that means—and there was that famous quip from George S. Kaufman who was mock-fed up with hearing an anti-Semitic comment one lunch time at the Algonquin Round Table and said:  “I’ve had enough slurs on my race. I am now leaving this table, this dining room, and this hotel. And I trust that Mrs. Parker will walk out with me—halfway.”)

Then something happens that changes the wrangling. Steven Carl McCasland touched on enough points in the writers’ lives to show them as human and self-absorbed.  We certainly get a measure of Gertrude Stein when she says early in the play: “The Jews have produced only three originative geniuses: Christ, Spinoza and myself.” She has little respect for Hellman as a writer, (the audience is aware of the scandals that followed Hellman, in that she tended to play fast and loose with the truth). Hellman talked of her life, marriage and lovers such as Dashiell Hammett. She had attitude and didn’t shy away from any fight. Agatha Christie was obsessed with detail and facts.  We learned of her philandering first husband; that she disappeared for 11 days when she learned of her husband’s latest mistress and we learn of her loving second husband.

Dorothy Parker was interrogated by the others about what she wrote (“Everything” she said. Poems, plays and reviews”). There were some snide remarks about how reviews didn’t matter. The barbs flew through the air. But there were wonderful unguarded moments. Alice expressing her intense love for Gertrude when she first met her. Gertrude doing the same. The dialogue crackles. Someone mentions the scars on Dorothy Parker’s wrists—she had attempted suicide.

The coming war was always in the background. Politics were there as well. Stein was sure that France would never surrender. In fact they learn that France fell during the dinner party. Agatha Christie would be safe in England she thought. Hellman and Parker were two Americans in Europe so were not concerned initially. And then they all were concerned.

Little Wars is presented as a reading but this cast had done it before in October, so they certainly knew what they were doing.The cast is terrific.Linda Bassett is feisty, imperious and quiet-speaking as Gertrude Stein.She is so aware of her own brilliance that she is dazzling when she lobs a barb that is pristine, elegantly formed and lethal.She is also vulnerable, kind and openhearted when talking of Alice or taking in a person who needs caring.

Juliet Stevenson plays Lillian Hellman with a blazing arrogance that is different from Stein’s. Her arrogance comes from contempt for Gertrude and her insults towards Lillian. It’s as if it’s a foregone conclusion that these two towering writers would wrangle and they do. When Hellman is interrogating Mary, Juliet Stevenson plays it like a prowling panther circling prey—she toys with Mary and enjoys Mary’s discomfort at first until she learns the truth about her.

As Alice, Catherine Russell is as gentle and accommodating as Gertrude is prickly. Agatha Christie is played by Sophie Thompson, who seems slightly distant, observing, curious but seems to stand off and gather facts in the watching. Debbie Chazen is a flighty Dorothy Parker. Natasha Karp plays Bernadette as attentive but with a sad, horrific secret. And Sarah Solemani plays Mary with that confidence that her work in the underground is more important than these sniping women she’s just met. It’s a wonderful cast beautifully directed by Hannah Chissick

I liked the play a lot because McCasland is playing with a conceit involving huge egos that clash.  I loved being in the room with those whip-smart characters. I loved that the playwright made you feel smart if you knew something about the characters when they brought up a bit of information and I knew how to fill in the blanks. I don’t think it was necessary to have been steeped in the lore if each character because Steven Carl McCasland provided enough information to let you know who these characters were, and to whet your appetite to know more.

I did wonder that it was a conceit to get them in the same room for a dinner party to get the ball rolling on the real point of the story. Why would Alice invite them all? Since Lillian and Gertrude hated each other, why would even Lillian come? (Interestingly, Lillian and Gertrude didn’t meet until much later in Hollywood at a dinner party (!) for Gertrude. The host asked her who she wanted to invite and she said Dashiell Hammett. He accepted but wanted to bring Lillian Hellman. They both attended but when writing about it Stein didn’t mention Lillian at all. Ouch.)

I guess for the dinner party in Little Wars Lillian brought Dorothy Parker for protection.

So for me, the question of “why” came up occasionally and there were some awkward segues from some speeches to get the play moving in the direction McCasland wanted. I thought the strong points outweighed the weaknesses.

Little Wars streams until Feb. 14 at:


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