By: Paulanne Simmons
January 28, 2020: When a playwright decides to write about a group of literary luminaries, he’d better be able to turn a phrase or two himself. Fortunately, Steven Carl McCasland is the man for the job. His Little Wars, which begins streaming on Broadway On Demand February 1 as a “rehearsed reading,” is set in Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s wartime retreat at the foot of the French Alps. This is not exactly their salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, but soon their guests arrive.
The year is 1940, and, despite the privations of war, Stein (Linda Bassett) and Toklas (Catherine Russell) are hosting a dinner party for their friend Agatha Christie (Sophie Thompson). But much to Gertrude’s chagrin, the famed mystery writer has invited two of her friends, playwright Lillian Hellman (Juliet Stevenson) and poet/critic Dorothy Parker (Debbie Chazen). Add to this Gertrude and Alice’s housekeeper, Bernadette (Natasha Karp), and a mysterious American, who only wants to identify herself as Mary (Sarah Solemani), who is helping Gertrude and Alice transport Jewish refugees to safety, and the dinner party is complete.
In Little Wars, not only is the occasion imaginary; the food is too. But not to fear, there’s lots of alcohol flowing freely. If the bitter revelation of rancor and regrets fueled by too much liquor is something of a theatrical cliché, in this case it does ignite conversations that are witty, funny and often quite moving.
Director Hannah Chissick has put each actor in her own frame, with stage directions appearing every now and then as typewritten pages. Although this precludes any action, it does allow the actors to exhibit their formidable talents up close.
Bassett certainly dominates as the formidable sardonic, clever and ultimately vulnerable Stein. But Russell turns Toklas, who has been regarded as something of a nonentity, into a worthy and bittersweet foil. The longsuffering Toklas tolerates with a “tsk, tsk” her partner’s snide remarks to “Lilli Ann Hellman” and her supercilious treatment of Dorothy Parker, a writer she insists she’s never heard of.
However, both Chazen’s Parker and Stevenson’s Hellman can certainly hold their own. With her glass of scotch in one hand and her cigarette in the other, Hellman defends The Children’s Hour, her play about two headmistresses accused of having a lesbian affair, against Gertrude’s assaults. And the famously acerbic Parker blithely ignores Stein’s digs.
Each of these women has her own story. The imperial Christie remembers her first husband’s infidelity. Parker relives an abortion she cannot forget. Alice recalls the time Gertrude’s brother called her “abnormal.” Even the housekeeper and the rescuer have a tale to tell. These stores are told against the background of the carnage of World War II, at a time when every individual, including these writers, must decide whether or not to accept personal responsibility.
Much of Little Wars is not exactly historically correct. Stein was often criticized for her indifference to the plight of her fellow Jews. And, according to W. G. Rogers’ memoir, Toklas “was a little stooped, somewhat retiring and self-effacing.” But when a play is as insightful and entertaining as Little Wars, these seem to be petty details.