Life in Hellman

Talk of the town: Toys in the Attic
photo: Joan Marcus

Katrina devastated New Orleans, true. But to judge by Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic, the inner devastation was already there. A remarkable and remarkably strange woman, Hellman created in 1960 what must surely be one of the most peculiar—and peculiarly fascinating—plays ever to appear on Broadway, an eerie mixture of heedlessness and carefully plotted melodramatics, abetted by touches of surrealism and abnormal psychology, in which the violent wind that whips through a New Orleans family, shattering its fragile life, isn't an ocean storm but sheer naked consumerism. I remember an old stage manager telling me once that the worst job imaginable in the theatre was doing props for Toys in the Attic, and the Pearl Theatre Company's new production, the work's first major revival, shows exactly what he meant. Midway through Act One, when the charming, get-rich-quick schemer Julian Berniers (Sean McNall) comes home to his unmarried sisters Carrie (Rachel Botchan) and Anna (Robin Leslie Brown), he floods the stage with a blizzard of parcels—ball gowns, fur capes, hats, evening bags, a new piano (there's one already onstage), a refrigerator, and a washing machine. On Broadway, these objects may have fit more comfortably in what's presumably meant to be a spacious old New Orleans home; on the Pearl's cozy stage, the avalanche of consumer goods suggests a cultural botanist's mad interbreeding of The Price Is Right with the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera.

In real life, Hellman, probably the only Stalinist ever to pose for a Blackglama fur coat ad, was, like Julian Berniers, a ferociously determined high-end shopper. Maureen Stapleton, who created the role of Carrie in 1960, recalls in her autobiography Hellman's dragging her on a shopping spree during the show's Boston tryout. Numb with sticker shock, the star stood helpless while Hellman picked out item after pricey item that would be "perfect" for Stapleton, and made the actress buy them. "If clothing saleswomen had a special god," Stapleton writes, "they must have prayed to her for customers like Lillian Hellman." Neither author nor actress, apparently, noted the similarity between this scene and the one Stapleton and her colleagues were playing out nightly onstage. Hellman, who was raised in New Orleans, largely by her father's two unmarried sisters, seems to have poured more than the usual amount of personal feeling and personal recollection into Toys in the Attic; the vulnerability that suggests may account for the feverish, sometimes contradictory quality of the play's hurtling events.

If the absurd pileup of presents that Julian brings home makes up the evening's outward display (his sisters spend the remainder of the performance tidying up and repackaging the parcels), its dramatic fabric mixes family lore with gossip and speculation. Whole sections of the dialogue seem to be made up of local rumors, traded and assembled like items in a collection. As in any town, sex and money are the twin topics—shadowy adulteries, shady land deals—but this being New Orleans, both get an added twist from hush-hush talk of race mixing, a long-standing fact of the city's history, but only acknowledged behind closed doors. The eccentric, aloof Mrs. Prine (Joanne Camp), wealthy mother of Julian's mentally troubled bride, Lily (Ivy Vahanian), sees virtually no one except her African American chauffeur-cum-butler, Henry (Robert Colston), whose closeness to her is whispered to go well beyond the norm of domestic service. Julian's marriage to Lily is itself rumored to have involved some murky financial transactions with Mrs. Prine, and the newfound riches that provoke his shopping spree have come from an even murkier transaction that wraps up family, money, sex, and race in one neat package, involving two offstage figures: a grasping, tyrannical lawyer and his unhappy, reclusive wife, rumored to be of mixed race, and, to Lily's distress, also rumored to be Julian's current or former lover.

Lily's irrational (but perhaps not unjustified) jealousy precipitates the melodramatic turn of events that ultimately brings Julian to disaster, but the melodrama, embedded in this eerie context, never seems pat. The effect resembles that of a Max Ernst or SalvadorDali painting built around an architectural drawing of a cube: The strict geometric logic of the melodrama is defused by the surrounding irrationality. Julian's carefree openness about the elements of his secret deal virtually invites its destruction; Lily worships him, but has no hesitation about doing him harm; romantic Carrie, whose attachment to her brother is close to incestuous, makes no effort to stop her. Even the disaster itself, looked at objectively, is not so total as the characters paint it: Julian is beaten up and disillusioned, and has lost the remainder of the money he made, but much of it, including the amount so lavishly invested in all that merchandise, is still safe and sound; his sisters, through his giddy machinations, have lost their drudging day jobs, but now have a mortgage-free house and a nest egg on which to begin again. The person who suffers most is Julian's offstage paramour, who has suffered severe injury and lost everything in her life, including the enhanced status that comes with passing for white. The news that Katrina inflicted far severer damage on lower-income people of color than on the white gentry would probably not have startled Hellman.

But like other "social" implications in the play, this notion comes without the slightly rigid clarity that makes earlier Hellman works pack a stronger dramatic punch but often seem more simplistic morally. Like everything else in Toys in the Attic, race mixing in pre-civil rights New Orleans is presented as a gumbo of possibilities, not a set of inescapable rules. The same is true of the play's psychology, its economics, and its hazy anchorage in history: Is this the jazzy New Orleans of the '20s, or the gritty postwar port city of A Streetcar Named Desire, or something in between? It's hard to say: Like the stored childhood relics of the play's title, or the piles of new-bought goodies onstage, the various eras seem crammed haphazardly into the Berniers' old house—a house that, we learn, the sisters have always hated, while successfully convincing their brother that they loved it above all else. This dogged mixture of infatuation and resentment, which echoes through many of the characters' feelings toward one another, looks in retrospect like the play's theme: It is a study in how much we can hate the people and places we love. In that regard, it may be the most revealing picture we have of Hellman's thorny sensibility.

Austin Pendleton's production for the Pearl, solid but with occasional blurry spots, makes you feel the play's distinctive force, though never quite lifting it to blastoff. You sense the power and exhilaration of a team effort, particularly when Rachel Botchan and Robin Leslie Brown are crackling through their sibling spats as the tightly bonded but disparate sisters; at the same time, the feeling that the play has been pinched here and stretched there to fit a permanent company never quite fades away. One performance, though, flies gloriously free of it: Sean McNall gives Julian a manic joie de vivre, with a running ribbon of desperation always underneath it, that makes Hellman's hapless sap of a hero exactly the magical and disturbing figure she must have envisioned.

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