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Imaginary Friends

Cherry Jones and Swoosie Kurtz play
bitter enemies in Imaginary Friends
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Enter smoking. The first image in Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends at the Ethel Barrymore is of two glowing cigarettes piercing a dimly lit stage. The one dangled by Mary McCarthy (Cherry Jones) will be quickly discarded; it is, one comes to suspect, a temporary aberration in the life of this holier-than-thou novelist. But the one in the stubby fingers of Lillian Hellman (Swoosie Kurtz) might as well be surgically attached; it will coarsen her already throaty voice, shorten her life, and generate more stage smoke than a week of Phantoms.

Two cigarettes in the dark: With admirable economy, Ephron and hotter-than-hot director Jack O'Brien (Hairspray) have established a rare common-ground moment for these two polar-opposite, 20th century writers -- for one was a relentless pursuer of the truth, the other an incurable embroiderer of it.

You may already have heard of Ephron's ingenious conceit for her new "play with music" (that music is by Marvin Hamlisch; the lyrics are Craig Carnelia's). McCarthy and Hellman knew each other only slightly yet loathed each other deeply. Their enmity culminated in a 1980 libel suit, famously triggered when McCarthy, on The Dick Cavett Show, said of Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" The case never came to court -- Hellman died first -- but what, Ephron asks, if it did? And what if the authoresses had a chance to confront one another's pasts in the afterlife -- to challenge assertions, defend perceived wrongs, and grope toward a possible otherwordly friendship? With these two dazzling actors portraying two of the past century's more fascinating women, it's delicious to contemplate. (Whether Ephron has Hellman and McCarthy spending the afterlife in heaven or hell is never made explicit, though scenic designer Michael Levine's red-curtain motif may lend a hint.)

Whenever the literary pair is flinging mud across the stage, snarling well-turned insults and accusations back and forth, Imaginary Friends is a rollicking good time. Ephron, the daughter of a celebrated husband-and-wife screenwriting team and no slouch herself as a romantic-comedy writer (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, etc.), knows how to write for smart women and has steeped herself in the personal histories of these two notable examples. "You wrote fact and called it fiction!" jeers Hellman, causing McCarthy to volley back, "You wrote fiction and called it fact!" McCarthy dismisses Hellman's plays as "too well-made," always containing a convenient "gun on the mantle" to propel the plot. Hellman, reminding her nemesis of how Hellman vs. McCarthy brought both of the women new notoriety late in life, gleefully counters: "I was your third act!"

The dialogue is lively but the silences are just as telling, if not more so. One of the prime pleasures of Imaginary Friends is watching these expert actors just listen to each other. Kurtz's Hellman impatiently slashes the air and lights another cig, scowling like a prison matron and pacing like a panther. Jones's McCarthy bears Hellman's protests and put downs with a small, self-satisfied smile, utterly convinced of her own rightness but with a trace of worry underneath, as if she secretly envied Hellman's self-dramatizing skills. Robert Morgan's costume design helps accentuate their differences, with Hellman generally clad in 1960s chic (the better to offset her much-advertised unattractiveness) and McCarthy going in for a more domestic, June Cleaver look.

Harry Groener and Cherry Jones
in Imaginary Friends
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Along the way, the two recount not only each other's lives but a healthy hunk of 20th century culture and politics. Hellman was the longtime companion of mystery master Dashiell Hammett; McCarthy lived for years with Partisan Review founder Philip Rahv, then embarked on several marriages, the first to literary critic Edmund Wilson. The women's alliances with high-powered, left-leaning literary males compelled Hellman to dabble in Communism and McCarthy to embrace Trotskyism. (Ephron manages to provide a primer on both without making us feel as if we're in study hall.) Called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1952, Hellman refused to name names, stirringly testifying: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." Kurtz's Hellman not only makes the most of this moment but unsuccessfully demands that it be the first-act curtain. She also waits like a spoiled diva for her stage applause, murmuring, "We could be here all night."

It's that kind of constant theatrical self-reference that undercuts some of the fun. This is Ephron's first play, and she has perhaps thrown in too many devices. The first few times the protagonists directly address the audience, it's funny. ("They'll think you mean Phillip Roth," sneers Hellman when McCarthy mentions Philip Rahv.) But by the seventh or eighth such instance, it's wearying; with women this intimidating, it frankly wouldn't hurt to keep the fourth wall up, if only for protection. The whimsy, too, can get a bit thick: Kurtz plays the little-girl Hellman with a lisp and an oversize hair ribbon. A huge fig tree, meant to evoke Hellman's childhood refuge, overwhelms the stage design. Even life-size dolls invade the action with increasing frequency and to diminishing effect.

And then there are the songs. When Imaginary Friends was first announced for production, some in the theatrical community wondered what about this piece requires musicalization. And now we have the answer: Nothing. Not that they're bad songs. Carnelia's lyrics are often bracingly clever (I loved his Cole Porterization of McCarthy's first encounter with Wilson: "A smoke, a drink, and you / The rapturous force of a future divorce for two") and Hamlisch's pastiche melodies support them agreeably. But songs in a play need to be needed, and these largely are not. "Music?" cues Hellman or McCarthy (I forget which) to set up the first song. "Why not?" But why? A Brechtian piece about the Joe McCarthy witch hunt, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been," feels pasted on. A title song meant to underscore Hellman's and McCarthy's lonely childhoods goes on too long. The always likeable Harry Groener, who has spent the evening playing most of the men in their lives, gets an irrelevant song-and-dance number about how he's tired of playing the men in their lives. Only when the nimble-footed Dirk Lumbard and Peter Marx do a vaudeville turn on "Fact and Fiction" does the music really comment on, and enhance, the action.

For that, it seems, is what the evening is ultimately about: fact and fiction, and how one can't (or shouldn't) exist without the other. Ephron and O'Brien have claimed that Imaginary Friends is about the tough plight faced by smart 20th century women, and it certainly is, but that feels like a secondary theme. McCarthy couldn't stop telling the truth (as Hellman tartly comments, she barely bothered to disguise the real-life models for her characters); Hellman couldn't avoid altering it, mainly to turn herself into the heroine of any given situation.

Why such opposite approaches? Rather in the naive style of a 1940s Hollywood movie exploring psychoanalysis, Ephron goes back to each woman's childhood and uncovers a seminal event to forever scar their respective psyches. McCarthy, it seems, was told a monstrous lie about her parents at a tender age. This -- plus a strict Catholic upbringing and an abusive uncle -- compelled her to spend the rest of her life burrowing to the bottom of things. Hellman, on the other hand, witnessed her father in a compromising position with a Southern beauty as a little girl and was ordered to cover up for him. From then on, she invented whatever reality was necessary to make her and those close to her look good.

Swoosie Kurtz as little Lillian Hellman
in Imaginary Friends
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Who's right? Who's wrong? The answer, of course, lies somewhere in between, but Ephron does let it slip that Hellman enjoyed far more popular success than McCarthy. Further, the juicy dramatic skills that could cook up The Little Foxes or Pentimento may have had a high hokum quotient -- filmed as Julia, Hellman's late memoir Pentimento fancifully turned the author into a fearless Nazi fighter -- but they did alert the masses to the potential ugliness of excess capitalism and the wartime heroics that women were capable of. If Hellman had to steal some other woman's life to rouse the rabble, what of it?

McCarthy, meanwhile, enjoyed only one major literary success, The Group, and even Hellman's lawsuit failed to ignite sales of McCarthy's autobiography. Ephron may or may not have intended it but, in Kurtz's feisty portrayal, Hellman comes across as the woman we'd rather get drunk with while Jones's detailed delineating of McCarthy's moral rectitude paints her as something of a schoolmarmish scold.

Intriguingly, McCarthy does ultimately veer away from her own straight-and-narrow path. In a telling scene, Ephron has her rehearsing her Cavett show appearance, trying to come up with the exact verbal formulation that will slap Hellman the hardest while appearing spontaneous. Later, in a protracted fantasy sequence, McCarthy grills the real-life model for Julia (a game Anne Pitoniak), indulging in the sort of courtroom theatrics a chronic truth-teller ought to deplore. We know where this scene is going (toward wrecking Hellman's story) and it takes too long to get there, but it's interesting how willing McCarthy is to play to the gallery in pursuit of higher truth. Reality, yes, she appears to say; but if you have to leaven reality to sock your point across, go right ahead. Well -- isn't that what Hellman did for most of her career?

Such questions are compelling enough in themselves to dispense with the need for elaborate stage mechanics. Much of Imaginary Friends -- the catfights, mainly, and the dueling protagonists' tentative, ambivalent reaching out toward one another -- is bracing stuff. But why not let it go at that? When you have Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman at center stage, and the great Cherry Jones and Swoosie Kurtz to play them, you needn't drag in a stageful of supporting players, life-size dolls, and Brechtian song interludes to distract your audience.