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Theatre Mon Feb 09 2009

Review: Scoundrel Time at City Lit

In 1952, playwright Lillian Hellman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Unwilling to name names of those she knew with Communist affiliations or plead the fifth, thereby incriminating them, Hellman wrote a personal statement that read in part, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion."

That statement's resonance in the days of Guantanamo is not lost on the audience at Scoundrel Time, City Lit Theatre's recent adaptation of Hellman's play recounting her time during the Hollywood blacklist.  But some of Scoundrel's subtleties do get lost in City Lit's adaptation of the text-heavy script, which becomes a mouthful at times for actress Sheila Willis (playing Hellman). Granted, the script is ripe with semicolons and appositives and thus reads more like a written memoir than a play, but monologue-driven, prose-ish selections is what City Lit is known for, so you'd think they'd do a better job of animating Hellman's work.

Artistic director Terry McCabe decided to do Scoundrel with a cast of two: Willis as Hellman, and Jerry Bloom as a pantheon of blacklist-era players -- Dashiell Hammet, Elia Kazan, Joseph Rauh, Clifford Odets, and others. Bloom does his best with the changes and cuts an eerily accurate Hammet, but some characters get lost in the shuffle: the audience is sometimes unsure just who is refilling Hellman's whiskey glass at the moment.

Scoundrel Time almost rises above these limitations. When the actors aren't tripping over the wordy script or switching hats, the play lifts off from the sparsely-decorated set and becomes the living biography of a woman who would rather wreck her own career than bend for government hysteria. And it is a fascinating portrait of Hellman and Hammet, the McCarthy-era John & Yoko, as a couple that loved and inspired each other but sometimes had difficulty living in the same room. But as soon as we lose ourselves in some well-acted string of Hellman's remembrances as the ice melts in her ever-present whiskey glass, we're brought back by an oddly-placed snippet of Sinatra or a not-quite-right character change.

Still, Lillian Hellmaniacs will find this show well worth sitting through, as would anyone interested in the parallels between 1950s blacklisting and the Bush administration. The performances will no doubt become more seamless later in the run, so if you're curious about who Hellman was or what happened this little corner of history, you might want to check out this show. But be warned: you're going to want a glass of bourbon afterward.

Tickets are available online or by calling 773-293-3682.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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