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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the February 12, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
In New York: `Imaginary Friends’
In the event that you were not overly concerned with
or particularly intrigued by the personal and professional feud between
novelist-critic Mary McCarthy and playwright-memoirist Lillian Hellman
that drew considerable attention from the press in 1980, this is your
chance to fill the void. You may or may not recall that Hellman brought
suit after being called a liar by McCarthy on the Dick Cavett Show
and a well-publicized lawsuit followed. McCarthy said, on the air,
"Everything that woman writes is a lie, including The and And.")
The two women never met in real time, but their lives overlapped and
most likely sideswiped each other during the same mid-20th century
years. This is the basis for Nora Ephron’s play "Imaginary Friends."
Know for her books ("Wallflower at the Orgy," "Crazy Salad"
and even more so for her successful screenplays "Silkwood,"
"Heartburn," and "When Harry Met Sally"), Ephron’s
talent has also extended into directing some of her films. But in
this, her first play, the course she has set is adventurous but only
rarely amusing or intriguing.
Informed as much by name-dropping as it is by name-calling, the play
is structured with a time-line that parallels Hellman and McCarthy’s
public and private lives. These lives, from childhood to adulthood,
are presented as vaudeville-like skits, in which cameo portrayals
of the most renowned intellectuals of the time add a bit of historical
perspective. Marvin Hamlisch also embroiders the play with some nice
but superfluous music with lyrics by Craig Cornelia. There is some
pleasant dancing choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, and even a little
puppetry to offer divertissement. In fact, "Imaginary Friends"
employs almost every theatrical device which include some cleverly
devised settings by Michael Levine and stylish costumes by Robert
Morgan. What it doesn’t include is a script with a bite. Instead of
being smart, sassy and involving, the play, despite the musical sequences,
lumbers along as its two self-serving, ego-driven celebrities set
off in search of themselves.
Propelled by its one-person singular conceit and presented as a series
of anecdotal episodes, "Imaginary Friends" would have us awed
by the facts and circumstances that caused these women to grow to
hate each other. And why should we care, is a question that may keep
popping up in your mind. As Hellman was rather infamous for creating
truth as she saw it, and McCarthy seemed hell-bent on discrediting
Hellman, their conflict is defined in the play by their own self-indulgent
flair for editorializing. Ephron uses the perspective of Hellman and
McCarthy to frame portraits that appear more satiric than compelling,
more disingenuous than engaging.
What is strangest about the production that is directed with ample
fluidity and focus by Jack O’Brien, is the different styles of acting
that contrasts Swoosie Kurtz, as Hellman, and Cherry Jones, as McCarthy.
While Kurtz’s small delicate face and body and demeanor couldn’t be
farther from that of the coarse-natured, horse-headed Hellman (she
was famous for her sexual conquests), her performance appears as a
parody. Jones, on the other hand, plays McCarthy with a direct, no-nonsense
approach that seems quite literal, with blandness as a result. Ephron’s
script rarely takes flight; it relies on these two otherwise fine
actors who must resort for the most part to smirking or being smug
and disdainful. But to what end we ask?
Attention is shifted easily to the excellent and chameleon-like Harry
Groener, who charmingly leads a corps of dancers in some cutesy turns.
He most winningly assumes various cameo appearances as author Dashiell
Hammett, novelist James T. Farrell, publisher Philip Rahv, British
poet and critic Stephen Spender, and the great American literary critic
Edmund Wilson with panache. Veteran actor Ann Pitoniak convincingly
portrays the character of psychoanalyst Muriel Gardiner, who exposed
the Julia of "Pentimento" as a fiction. Fiction or fact, imaginary
or real, Ephron’s play is less about setting the record straight than
it is about considering how these dynamic, perplexing women might
just as easily have become the best of friendly enemies. Imagine that,
if you care to. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.
New York. $55 to $90. To February 16. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250
or 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
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