A light in the attic

By Jerry Tallmer

Lillian Hellman suited her name: She was a hell-raiser first, last, and always. She fought tooth and claw with Dashiell Hammett, the main man in her life until his death in 1961, she fought racists, witch-hunters, bigots, right-wingers, not a few left-wingers, men, women, producers, agents, writers, editors, critics, publicists, actors, lovers, directors — and Austin Pendleton well remembers, with something akin to joy, the fights she and he had when in 1981 he was directing the Broadway production of “The Little Foxes” that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Maureen Stapleton.

One of those shouting matches rattled the lobby of what was then called the Martin Beck and is now the Al Hirschfeld Theater.

“It was almost the last preview before the press was invited in,” Pendleton said the other day at the Pearl Theatre on St. Mark’s Place, where Hellman’s “Toys in the Attic” was about to open under his direction. “She began attacking the one scene she had not yet attacked, Horace’s long speech at the end of Act II that’s followed by Regina saying: ‘I hope you die.’ Out in the lobby, she, Lillian, just lost it.”

In the Pearl Company’s newsletter, Pendleton is somewhat more specific:  “She was giving me one criticism too many, finally, and I started kicking the wall and yelling: ‘This is the worst f—ing night of my life!’ And she bangs her cane on the floor and says: Every time I see this f—ing production is the worst f—ing night of my life!’ She loved that kind of thing.” 

With a smile, thoughtful, mild-mannered Austin Pendleton adds: “It never mattered what her objections were. She objected just to object. It was not, shall we say … nuanced.

Mike Nichols [who directed the 1967 “Little Foxes” at Lincoln Center in which then 26-year-old Pendleton had portrayed Leo Hubbard]  told Austin: ‘You’ve got to be careful with Lillian because she’s often right and she always sounds like she’s wrong.’

“But she always came back to being cordial. She once said to me: ‘There’s something you don’t understand, Austin: Friends can fight.’ ”

This journalist had interviewed Lillian Hellman once or twice, in her dark, brooding Park Avenue apartment, late in her life. She smoked constantly, and would die of it. Was she a chain-smoker when Austin Pendleton knew her?

“Absolutely. And there would often be a gentlemen with her who would jump up every 15 minutes to light her cigarette. She was very flirtatious, you know.” Two beats. “I mean, I loved her.”

And of all Lillian Hellman’s plays — a dozen power entries in the American dramatic canon — Pendleton cherishes “Toys in the Attic” most. He first cast eyes on its two sisters, Carrie and Anna Berniers, New Orleans spinsters who have spent their lives propping up their ne’er-do-well brother, Julian Berniers, when, as a student at Yale — a 19- or 20-year-old kid who knew very little about Hellman — he came down to New York and happened onto the original (1960) production starring Maureen Stapleton, Anne Revere, and Jason Robards, Jr., directed by Arthur Penn.

“I wandered in to it, and loved it. It really gripped me. Soon after that, it faded from the scene. I never thought I’d have the chance to direct it, and was really surprised when, all these years later, the people here at the Pearl” [i.e., artistic director Shepard Sobell] “asked me to do it.” It is the first time Pendleton — fresh from his Chaplain’s role in this past summer’s “Mother Courage” in Central Park — has worked at the Pearl in any capacity.

There are those who see some affinity between the sisters Bernier and Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” but Pendleton sees no such tie (nor do I).

“Not really,” he said. “Well” — with his grave smile, very appealing under his now snow-white-silky hair — “it is about siblings. And they do yearn for something they think they want but don’t do anything about. But beyond that … ” He lets it trail off into space.

There are passing references in “Toys in the Attic” to the river (Mississippi) and the lake (Pontchartrain) which 45 years later would destroy the city of New Orleans in which this play, like Tennessee Williams’s “Streetcar” and Tony Kushner’s “Caroline,” is set. Is that on the present director’s mind, or the minds of his actors?

“No,” said Pendleton, flat out. “No. Though it may be in the audiences’ minds.”

Has Austin ever known any real-life people like these two sisters and their screw-up, bragging, failure-at-everything brother?

Pendleton thinks, fingers to lip. Then says: “In a play the characters either evoke somebody or they don’t.” In short, for him, these Berniers do not. “But I remember that the first time I ever saw this play, I believed it.” Then: “I’ve enjoyed a lot of plays I did not believe. But I’ve never believed a play I did not enjoy.”

Born March 27, 1940, in Warren, Ohio, anointed with a stutter which he has fought down all his life — and capitalized on hilariously in the movie “My Cousin Vinnie” — Austin Pendleton, fresh out of Yale, made a socko New York Off-Broadway debut in Arthur Kopit’s 1962  “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad.”

Now he said of that performance: “I didn’t know what I was doing. I would swing past it, and through it, every night, like a pendulum” — he said, arms swinging like pendula — which, he added, was also how Elizabeth Taylor swung through her Regina Giddens in “The Little Foxes.”

“When she was good she was very very good, but the outer edges of the arc [of the pendulum] were a little rough. She’d never done a play eight times a week. She’d never done a play.” 

It was, however, nothing like working with Lillian Hellman. “Elizabeth Taylor is a very nice person and very collegial.”

Collegial, Lillian Hellman was not. She was just one of our greatest playwrights — “If you want to be picky about it, just an inch below those who gave us at least one imperishable masterpiece.”

Masterpiece or whatever, “Toys in the Attic” hasn’t perished in 47 years. With Rachel Bolchon as Carrie, Robin Leslie Brown as Anna, and Sean McNall as Julian, at 80 St. Mark’s Place it lives on.


TOYS IN THE ATTIC. By Lillian Hellman. Directed by Austin Pendleton. Through February 18 at the Pearl Theatre, 80 St. Mark’s Place, (212) 598-9802.