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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.

Simon Saltzman

Imaginary Friends, Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47 Street,

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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