Imaginary Friends

Review by Adam Blair

A Play with Music by Nora Ephron
Music by Marvin Hamlisch; lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Directed by Jack O'Brien; Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
Starring Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones, with Harry Groener and Anne Pitoniak
At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City

Nora Ephron is both clever and funny, even when you can see how hard she's working at being clever and funny. She's also kept true to her origins (in both good and bad ways) as a magazine journalist, through a fairly successful career as an author, screenwriter and film director. The good ways are, again, funny, clever, with the ability to summarize a character, a time, or an attitude with a few well-chosen words. On the bad side, she is like a lot of journalists in that she knows a little about a lot of things but not a great deal about any one thing. She is also professionally shallow - in the sense that big ideas, big feelings, etc. are all well and good, but they do tend to make the reader skip ahead to the recipes and celebrity photos further on in the magazine.

She's also insecure enough, or smart enough about her own limitations, to realize that structure is not her long suit. Her most successful romantic comedy films (Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail) were both riffs on/ripoffs of classic films (An Affair to Remember and The Shop Around the Corner, respectively). Her book Heartburn - a fun read - had the structure of Ephron's own life to work from; it's a roman a clef about the end of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. Even in the book you can see her insecurity about structure - it's studded with food recipes, as if reading about a pregnant wife with a cheating husband won't be interesting enough in and of itself.

Which brings us to Imaginary Friends, Ephron's "play with music" (the designation is accurate: it's definitely not a musical in the sense that most people currently understand it). Ephron has again gone to the real-life well, chronicling the battles between two 20th-century literary lionesses, Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. The two had a lifelong feud, or more accurately an intensely competitive dislike, although they moved in different segments of the New York literary/political circle (and you'd be surprised how many circles within circles that circle contains).

The flash point for Imaginary Friends is a real-life lawsuit. Late in her life, Hellman sued McCarthy for saying in a television interview that "Everything she [Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." The immediate cause for McCarthy's remark was that Hellman had written in her book Pentimento about her childhood friend Julia, a member of the anti-Nazi underground, and how Hellman helped smuggle cash to her in Berlin in the mid-1930s. The story, and its glamorization of Hellman, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the movie Julia, with Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as Julia, and Jason Robards as Hellman's love Dashiell Hammett thrown in. The movie was a big hit, and both Redgrave and Robards took home Best Supporting Actor Oscars. Trouble was, it apparently never happened in real life. Or rather, there was an actual person like the fictional "Julia," but she didn't know Lillian Hellman, didn't receive smuggled cash, didn't die a tragic death. Hellman passed off fact-based fiction as actual fact, and it added to her self-perpetuating legend rather nicely.

McCarthy, meanwhile, wrote journalism as well as fiction, but her fiction was uncomfortably close to fact. The Group, her book about a group of Vassar graduates, apparently contains scathing portraits of McCarthy's friends and acquaintances (I admit I haven't read it).

So we have two wordsmithing divas meeting in some afterlife (both ladies died in the 1980s; Hellman died before the lawsuit could come to court) to see if there's some way they can work all this out. Imaginary Friends is certainly entertaining as an intellectual vaudeville, helped enormously by its two stars. Swoosie Kurtz wrings every self-dramatizing sneer out of her Hellman. Incredible chameleon Cherry Jones creates a context for McCarthy's lifelong quest for "truth" but also gives us the fun she had in being a malicious bitch. Both look great in Robert Morgan's period-appropriate costumes, and get the chance to clown, connive and cat-fight. What more could an actress ask for?

They are supported superbly by musical comedy veteran Harry Groener, playing all the various men in both ladies' lives, smoothly segueing from slick, drunken Dashiell Hammett to paunchy Edmund Wilson to brilliant, argumentative Philip Rahv. The second act's high point is Groener's graceful song-and-dance turn, when he lets both Hellman and McCarthy know he's done everything he can - the rest is up to them. Fans of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" will fondly remember Groener as the Sunnydale mayor who becomes a giant snake. He's equally charming, though less reptilian, here.

The problems with Imaginary Friends are many, however. Marvin Hamlisch's pleasant songs, set to clever but forgettable lyrics by Craig Carnelia, are mainly interruptions, and serve as so much padding for what's already a thin, stretched concept. The songs don't really illuminate the characters or even provide any kind of emotional background (except for the title number, which opens Act II).

Another problem is that Hellman, McCarthy and the rest of those portrayed in the play had their heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s. Today's historically forgetful audience probably doesn't know, or care, about the distinction between Trotskyites and Stalinists, or understand what a sensation Hellman's debut play The Children's Hour was in 1934 (it had a lesbian theme - wow! then, big whoop now). Ephron acknowledges as much, in one of several winks to the audience, and she is good at explaining who people are and what's at stake, but ultimately this is a play, not a report with footnotes.

What's ultimately frustrating about Imaginary Friends is that it only touches lightly on a theme that would seem to be perfect for Ephron: how a woman writer can make it in a man's world without becoming a caricatured bitch. Ephron herself has made it in several men's worlds (she is one of only a handful of mainstream female film directors who works with any regularity; I may not like her movies much but my hat's still off to her for that.) There's a bit of dialogue between Hellman and McCarthy about wanting to be one of the guys, or wanting to be the only woman at the table, and how that amounted to the same thing. This is a theme that Ephron actually does know something about, and she could have cut out all the songs and dances and probably made an interesting one-act play about that - and been clever, funny, and provided fun acting roles for Kurtz and Jones at the same time. I'm grateful she's done some of those things, even if they leave me wanting more substance with the style.

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