Lillian Hellman, who gave us so many fierce and funny characters in her plays, from ``The Little Foxes'' to ``The Children's Hour,'' has become her own best character in a new play. Called simply ``Lillian,'' it is an affectionate, pungent reprise of her life and writing by William Luce, author of ``The Belle of Amherst.'' Lillian Hellman is the belle of lettres in this one-woman play, which she worked on with Luce until her death. The play is based on her autobiographies, ``An Unfinished Woman,'' ``Pentimento,'' ``Scoundrel Time,'' and ``Maybe.'' She is brought blazingly to life on stage by Zoe Caldwell in a bravura performance that deserves a Tony nomination. Miss Caldwell is, as one first-nighter put it, ``More Lillian than Lillian.''
The familiar, leonine head is there, carefully coiffed, the measuring eyes squinting slightly in the wreath of smoke around her, the characteristic downward tilt of the face followed by an upward glance, perhaps a vestige of the ``Lilly'' born in New Orleans, and the throaty voice. As the curtain goes up, Lillian is seated center stage: an impeccably dressed woman in a tailored gray suit, she sits in a velvet chair outside the hospital door of Dashiell Hammett, the 30-year love of her life, who li es in a coma. And while she waits for the news of his condition, she spins out the story of her life. We are in the grip of a consummate actress illuminating the life of a master storyteller.
She tells of a family brouhaha when she was a girl, and of her Uncle Jack saying, ``So you do have spirit after all; most of them are made of sugar water.'' Then Lillian adds she used that line, imprinted on her memory, in ``The Little Foxes.'' And she tells one of the classic Hellman stories about the venerable British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, desperate for a lucrative role in Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg's new film. She had the role until at a dinner party given by Thalberg an d his wife, actress Norma Shearer, Mrs. Campbell purred, ``Mr. Thalberg, your wife has the most beautiful little eyes I ever saw.'' Zoe Caldwell does a wonderful imitation of Lillian imitating the regal actress, licking her chops afterward like a cat after a bowl of cream.
And she tells stories on herself, about the way as a child she used to play hooky in a favorite fig tree. (``You have to be a child to think a place misses you.'') She tells about the ruined opening night of her first hit, ``The Children's Hour,'' when her love and mentor Dash Hammett celebrated by going off with another woman. ``Suffering is a private matter. There is no invoice of it,'' she murmurs at one point as she waits outside his hopsital room. They had met when ``he was getting over a four-day drunk, and I was getting over a four-year marriage,'' she says of their stormy relationship riddled by drinking problems. ``All I ever wanted was a docile woman,'' said Dash, but that's not what he got in the uppity, articulate, fiery woman who once flew from New York to bash in his California soda bar in a fit of jealousy.
The drama of Lillian Hellman's own life (including the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings at which she testified: ``I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion'') provides a heady evening in the theater. Luce has written ``Lillian'' with great style, wit, and a passion for the language which she herself might have applauded. Its only flaw is that by the middle of the second act it drags, becomes too wordy, desperately needs some cutting and rewriting. As Hammett told Hellman when she showed him the ninth draft of ``The Children's Hour,'' try it again.
The play's deft director, Robert Whitehead, has provided a simple, perfect setting, like a Tiffany ring setting, in which his wife, Zoe Caldwell, shines. There is no trunkful of props, as in ``The Belle of Amherst.'' There is only that chair, a table with a coffee pot and cup, and the walls of the room on which the clouds of memory are faintly visible. Against this undistracting background, Miss Caldwell (who is somewhat taller and slimmer than Miss Hellman) uses every subtle gesture and nuance to make ``Lillian'' emerge vividly before our eyes, finally, a finished woman.