CAKEWALK. Play by Peter Feibleman. At the American Repertory Theatre through July 17.
BY her own admission, writer Lillian Hellman was a difficult woman. A provocative, controversial figure with a brilliant mind, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking Hellman was as renowned (or lambasted) for her larger-than-life personality as for her reputation as one of America's most significant dramatists (including eight original plays and three memoirs.)
By most accounts, she was irascible, intractable, sarcastic, and possessed of a caustic wit and sharp tongue. She was ruled most of her life by a seething, barely controlled anger that erupted in hostility toward friends and enemies alike. Hellman loved a good fight.
In Peter Feibleman's new play, "Cakewalk," produced by the American Repertory Theatre and starring Elaine Strich and John Slattery, audiences are treated to another side of Hellman. Though Feibleman doesn't flinch from portraying Hellman's least admirable qualities, he somewhat downplays her vituperative spirit and shows the more private persona as well, with qualities that include warmth, flashes of unabashed almost girlish enthusiasm, and a poignant vulnerability.
"Cakewalk" is a love story, but, in the spirit of Hellman's own writing voice, it is devoid of sentimentality and laced with a sharp, devastating humor.
Based on his book "Lilly: Reminiscences of Lillian Hellman," Feibleman's play revolves around his own relationship with the dramatist. They first met at the Feibleman home when Peter was only 10, and Hellman nicknamed him Cuff.
The play picks up again when Cuff and Hellman begin attending the same literary parties after the successful reception of Feibleman's first novel. He was 28. She was in her 50s. From there, the two develop an unusual kinship that spans the remainder of Hellman's life, until her death in 1984 at the age of 79.
Act I of "Cakewalk" is a gem. Under the direction of Ron Daniels, the play moves smoothly from brief flashbacks to the current action at Hellman's house on Martha's Vineyard, where Cuff has retreated to get his new novel on track. Hellman is both confessor and teacher, berating the young novelist to confide his secrets and deepen the details of his work. "What are you hiding," she repeatedly badgers him. "You're cheating."
Over the course of the summer, Cuff's initial nervousness in the presence of "the great writer" gradually dissolves. He responds to Hellman's baiting with taunts of his own, and soon the two are bantering and bickering with easy camaraderie. Despite the obvious age disparity, the sexual tension mounts and the two become lovers.
Act II is less successful, overly long, and mired in the difficulties of the pair's transcontinental relationship, as Cuff travels to his native New Orleans to "find himself," then to Hollywood to write movie scripts.
Though the agreed upon relationship between them is without strings, Hellman keeps turning up at Cuff's door, jealous over his many sexual partners. The clever banter of Act I is replaced with carping, though there are some funny scenes and wonderfully telling moments - an ashtray fight, a dispute over the merits of celery just minutes after Hellman enters Cuff's door. The act spans more than 20 years, showing Cuff's loyalty and devotion at the end of Hellman's life when she has been debilitated by strok es and is nearly blind.
The classy Broadway veteran Strich is remarkably cast as Hellman. Her charismatic presence makes the older woman-younger man attraction quite credible. Though her focus seemed to wander slightly on press night, she gave a lively visceral performance, her character voluble yet never overplayed.
John Slattery, who carried the play with spoken narration and asides to the audience, was wonderfully natural as Cuff, from his introduction as a stuttering young neophyte through maturity to a confident middle-aged writer. Stephanie Roth and Matthew Rauch ably tackled a variety of supporting roles. Roth's roles occasionally veered into caricature, but she was very affecting as Esther, Cuff's only long-term love interest.
Tony Straiges's lovely set design included an effective use of scrims and backdrops on which were projected evocative landscapes and locations (projection design by Sage Carter.) Howell Binkley's lighting design had an annoying tendency to fade in and out inappropriately. Carly Simon's lyrical incidental music added atmosphere at key spots.