Imaginary Friends by Nora Ephron. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Lyrics by Craig Carnelia. Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Scenic design by Michael Levine. Costume design by Robert Morgan. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Jon Weston. Video projection designer Jan Hartley. Music direction/supervision and dance arrangements by Ron Melrose. Orchestrations by Torrie Zito. Music coordinator Michael Keller. Starring Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones. Also starring Harry Groener. With Anne Pitoniak and Anne Allgood, Bernard Dotson, Rosena M. Hill, Gina Lamparella, Dirk Lumbard, Peter Marx, Perry Ojeda, Jim Osorno, Susan Pellegrino, Karyn Quackenbush, Melanie Vaughan.
The story of two titanic figures of 20th century writing locked in a battle for ideological supremacy is such a juicy one, it's difficult to believe it hasn't been done more often on Broadway, especially in our current overly-litigious society. Therefore, the time is more than ripe for a play like Imaginary Friends, about the Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy feud, which just opened at the Barrymore Theatre.
But while the play has the potential claws necessary for a literary catfight, it doesn't utilize them as often as it should. Novelist and screenwriter Nora Ephron has a thrillingly theatrical concept that she simply hasn't taken to its furthest extremes. This being her first play, that is perhaps understandable, and Imaginary Friends is never incompetent or boring. It does manage to be exciting occasionally, but less often than it should be.
What Ephron gets right is her depiction of Lillian Hellman (Swoosie Kurtz) and Mary McCarthy (Cherry Jones) as avatars for the diametrically opposed (maybe) deities of "fiction" and "fact." We learn that Hellman's desire for boundlessly (and occasionally irresponsibly) creative storytelling stems from childhood experiences that proved to her that lying or withholding the complete truth can sometimes be a good thing, while McCarthy was brought up (painfully) to believe that the truth should be one's ultimate goal in life.
As Imaginary Friends proceeds under Jack O'Brien's well judged and paced direction, most of the scenes expand on this basic concept. We see how McCarthy and Hellman fare in the cocktail circuit, how their politics impact their writing and their public personas, how they handle men and money differently, and so on. The writing in these scenes, while clever, doesn't always hint at the dramatic struggle that will arise from McCarthy's appearance on The Dick Cavett Show when she said of Hellman, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." We get to know the characters decently enough individually, but not well enough together.
When Imaginary Friends tackles that aspect of the story, presenting its scenes with the flair and creativity only theatre can allow, the play is at its best. One example happens near the end of the first act, when McCarthy and Hellman meet briefly after being asked to speak at a university, each presenting for the audience their take on what the other one said and did. These moments, which make the most of Michael Levine's curtain-laced set and Kenneth Posner's lighting, are theatrically astute and emotionally honest: The women probably would behave this way, since each believes the other responsible for the ensuing fight but the truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. The audience's unraveling of that truth is a vital element in the show, and one that works almost every time it's tried. Scenes that give us greater insight into the characters are always the most successful and entertaining, whether the hilarious scene where McCarthy and Hellman taking turns rewriting a play, or the contemplative one in which McCarthy practices bending the truth prior to her tumultuous TV appearance.
Kurtz and Jones are both superb in their roles, dramatic powerhouses using the widest range of their talents to bring their oversized characters down to earth. Though neither is completely able to overcome the play's duller, less interesting moments (particularly early in the second act, which has a bit too much filler), they both handle with aplomb scenes in which lesser actresses might find themselves mired (such as when they play themselves as young girls, discovering the philosophies that will later guide their lives), and turn in performances teeming with bite, style, and wit. Harry Groener gracefully portrays all the men in both womens' lives (their fathers, Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, Dashiell Hammett, and more), while Anne Pitoniak cleverly portrays the woman who provides a surprising connection between the two women.
But even such a strong collection of central performances can't overcome the most puzzling component of Imaginary Friends: its songs. Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia, behind the score for last season's musical Sweet Smell of Success, have provided a small handful of songs to supplement Ephron's dialogue.
While the songs don't slow down or detract from the action, they do not particularly enhance it. There's little point for the show's small chorus to establish Hellman's childhood with "The Fig Tree Rag," and though the vaudevillian turn Peter Marx and Dirk Lumbard provide (with Jerry Mitchell's choreography) in detailing the antics of Mr. Fiction and Mr. Fact is entertaining, the same points have already been made more effectively in dialogue. Groener has the best song, a plaint on the effect the men in these womens' lives had (or did not have), but he also couldn't make such unnecessary material seem integral.
What is missing, and would probably have made the show more effective, is the literary music created by McCarthy and Hellman. For the most part, their writings - as lyrical and incisive as one is apt to find - are missing from the play, and the contributions of Hamlisch and Carnelia are a poor substitute. Late in the show, when we're reminded of the real legacy these women leave behind in the impressive volume of material each produced, it becomes all too obvious that Imaginary Friends is weaker for its absence.
Given what is present, Nora Ephron could have quite a theatre career ahead of her. She has brought two really juicy roles for accomplished actresses and some savagely witty writing under the umbrella of Broadway theatricality, an impressive achievement for her first stage work. However, she would be expected to correct her lapses in judgment here in the future; if the addition of the songs was her idea, she should think twice next time and let her characters sing all on their own.