Juliet Stevenson as Lillian Hellman
by Deirdre Donovan
What if literary lionesses
Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Agatha
Christie, and anti-fascist freedom fighter Muriel Gardiner had a dinner party,
and you could be that proverbial fly on the wall? Well, that’s pretty
much what you can do by watching Steven Carl McCasland’s imaginative drama, Little
Wars, a streamed production that is available through February 14th.
Directed by Hannah Chissick, this
play comes to your screen with plenty of feminine fury. Set at the
country home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the French Alps at the
brink of World War II, this all-female drama offers you a slice of
history, juicy confessions from its celebrated women, and all the wit that you
would expect from pen-wielding femmes gathered at the same table.
The cast of Little
Wars: (top row, left to right) Catherine Russell, Linda Bassett, Juliet
Stevenson, Debbie Chazen (bottom row, left to right) Sarah Solemani, Natasha
Karp, Sophie Thompson
Photos by John Brannoch
Wars arrives with a
star-studded cast: Juliet Stevenson leads the cast as the formidable
Lillian Hellman, accompanied by Linda Bassett as the no-nonsense Gertrude
Stein, Catherine Russell as the devoted Alice B. Toklas, Debbie Chazen as
brash-tongued Dorothy Parker, and Sophie Thompson as the inimitable mystery
writer Agatha Christie. Rounding out the cast are Natasha Karp as the
maidservant Bernadette, and Sarah Solemani as the anti-Fascist fighter Mary /
Muriel Gardiner. This is a true ensemble effort, with each veteran
performer completely disappearing into the skin of their character.
Okay, the play is talky. But
how could it not be, given this sorority of titanic personalities who speak as
if each word that left their lips was ex cathedra? Little
Wars is awash with their witticisms, some sparkling like diamonds in
the rough, others stinging like acid.
There is, of course, some juicy
gossip sprinkled throughout. Indeed, you’ll learn early on how Stein
(Bassett nails her part) and Toklas (the superb Russell) met and fell in love
in Paris. They soon were inseparable, even though same-sex romantic
relationships were taboo in their day. Indeed, Gertrude Stein’s brother
strongly disapproved of their affair and bluntly called them “abnormal.”
Then you have Lillian Hellman
(kudos to Stevenson for her spot-on performance of the pundit), the author
of Little Foxes (it was gloriously revived on Broadway in
April 2017), The Children’s Hour, and Watch on the
Rhine—to mention a few. Yes, her work is dissected by her
dinner-mates, with some kind and not-so-kind comments on it.
No question you will see cat
fights among these famous authors. “You’re a hack,” Stein snarls to
Hellman, accusing her of the literary sin of venting her anger with a
pen. But Hellman one-ups Stein later on, pointing a finger at each of her
contemporaries who have borrowed, sooner or later, from their personal
experiences to write an essay, a poem, a book, a drama, or memoir. Or as
she bluntly puts it: “'Don't we twist the things that happen to us and sell
them between two hard covers?”
course, Stein and Hellman aren’t the only writers raising a ruckus here.
Dorothy Parker (Chazen is well-cast as the bibulous writer), who was a
founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, wants her say too. You might
think that you know everything worth knowing about Parker. But think again. Little
Wars reveals Parker’s more tragic side. You will hear about her
secrets here and what went on behind closed doors at the Algonquin—and
Sophie Thompson as Agatha Christie in Little Wars
Then there’s Agatha Christie
(Thompson plays her with unruffled conviction), the grand dame of the detective
novel. Ever wonder about the time she famously disappeared for 11 days in
1926 when she was in the midst of a divorce from her first husband Archie Christie?
Well, you will get the inside scoop from the author herself in this
True, I would have liked if
McCasland had managed to write a bit more on what made this writer tick (and
the foibles of the other authors too). After all, wouldn’t it be great to
hear how Christie was inspired to write The Orient Express or Then
There Were None?) But, then again, this is a truncated version
of Little Wars, clocking in at less than two hours.
Although you can get caught up in
the gossip, there’s true gravitas to the play. And, even though you’ll
hear about the grim political landscape from all gathered at the table, it’s
the New Jersey psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner (Solemani plays her role with the
earnestness of Mother Teresa), who first goes by the code name of Mary, who is
the most prescient person at the table when it comes to sensing war is at their
doorstep. The character Gardiner eventually drops her mask halfway
through the play, becoming transparent about her current mission and why she was
invited to this dinner party.
If it’s a
war story you want, go no farther than listening to the tragic one told by the
maidservant Bernadette. No, I won’t be a spoiler here. But her tale
about how she happened to become Stein and Toklas’ domestic worker will send
chills down your spine—and ultimately warm your heart.
The title, of course, suggests
those “little wars” (think back-biting) that are so often fueled by the
professional jealousy among writers. But McCasland has deepened its
meaning by deftly tucking it into the play’s dialogue. The character
Dorothy Parker, in fact, has the honor of delivering what may well be the best
line of the play: “It’s not the tragedies that kill us, you know, it’s the
little messes, the little wars.”
Yes, there are tons of streamed
productions that you can watch this winter. But Little Wars is
one that will stick in your memory long after the snow melts.
Through February 14th,
2021 Running Time: 1 hour; 53 minutes.
Wars can be purchased
Rental is only $9.95 and is good for 48 hours.
Please note: Falling
Stars, another work from the UK, conceived and written by Peter Polycarpou,
showcases the music of Charlie Chaplin, Irving Berlin, Vincent Youmans,
Meredith Wilson and other composers of the Golden Era and also is
available through February 14th, 2021, and can be purchased through www.broadwayondemand.com.
Rental is only $9.95 and is good for 48 hours.