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Love-hate relationship

Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones work around their mutual regard to convey Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman's common enmity.

December 01, 2002|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

San Diego — Cherry Jones and Swoosie Kurtz are sprawled in the VIP lounge for deep-pocketed supporters of the Old Globe Theatre, and quite an irresistibly cushy lounge it is. Clearly the San Diego theater's big donors get more for their money than just good seats and goodwill, judging from the plump eggplant and ruby cushions singing their siren song to Jones and Kurtz. Suddenly, they're horizontal.

It's like that with Cherry and "Swoose," as Jones calls her co-star in "Imaginary Friends," Nora Ephron's new play about playwright Lillian Hellman and novelist Mary McCarthy that opens on Broadway on Dec. 12. The two Tony winners are such fans of each other's work and humanity that they can relax completely together. So there's simply no reason to sit up.

At the moment, Jones seems as if she's morphed into liquid, she's given so much to the matinee performance that ended minutes earlier. She's poured onto her left side so her cheek presses into a velvet-covered bench, and she's talking about the ritual she and Kurtz fell into during the show's October run in Southern California. At first it sounds suspiciously like a rite of passage performed in lock-step by numerous captains of the entertainment industry -- Mondays at Morton's.

But take five. Not that Morton's.

"We go to this steakhouse every Monday night to get our iron supplement," says Jones, pulling her right heel toward her behind. "We eat these unbelievable amounts of meat together. Meat and vodka. And we're both convinced that if we wander away from that...."

Kurtz finishes her sentence: "We'll have to find a place in New York."

"Otherwise," says Jones, 46, "we'll just be little wilting lilies."

Here's the good news: The two stars of "Imaginary Friends" -- who, fear not, are no wilting lilies -- get along fabulously well. So if the show enjoys the long run indicated by its glowing out-of-town reviews -- "The two stage veterans prove superb," Sean Mitchell wrote in The Times -- the experience will be pleasant for everyone involved, which is no small thing.

And here's the bad news: The two stars of "Imaginary Friends" get along fabulously well, unlike their characters in the "play with music." "Imaginary Friends," which features Broadway veteran Harry Groener as the men in their lives, imagines the two adversaries together in death -- hell, actually -- as they rarely were in life, divided by their opposite natures: McCarthy was beautiful, Hellman, plain; McCarthy grew up a Catholic orphan abused by an uncle, Hellman was raised in a prosperous Jewish home; McCarthy was a stickler for the facts, while Hellman wove sumptuous fictions and called them memoirs.

In fact, Hellman's memoir "Pentimento," which was made into the film "Julia" starring Jane Fonda as Hellman, turned out to be a fabrication based on another woman's experience going behind enemy lines to help a friend in the anti-Nazi resistance, and the play supposes how a courtroom confrontation between Hellman and McCarthy might have gone.

The play climaxes with Hellman's libel lawsuit against McCarthy for assailing her on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1980 with the memorable quote: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' " Hellman died before the case could be tried, leaving McCarthy to remark witheringly, "I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court."

When Jones and Kurtz are onstage portraying two women whose mutual enmity reached historic proportions, they really have to work at hating each other. Not that there aren't techniques for that. They just don't particularly want to show you the man -- woman, actually -- behind the curtain.

"That was hard for both of us," says Kurtz, 58, "because we're both basically very loving and very positive people...."

"Who would go to China and back to avoid a conflict," says Jones with a throaty laugh.

"We probably shouldn't talk about things we use to ignite and incite our juices to get us going," says Kurtz demurely as she sits up and leans back into the purple cushions. "We all have our things, our little demons, whether they're jealousies or insecurities or angers, rages, whatever. It's just a question of degree," she says, between getting slightly angry "at somebody who takes a parking place and being Medea and gouging out somebody's eyes."

Jones gets her McCarthy on in part by visualizing Hellman where Kurtz stands. "I have my substitutions that I'm struggling to work on to get them to the heights they need to be for this," she says.

Indeed, the performers bond with their characters at least as much as they bond with each other, so at certain points it's difficult to tell who's who, even offstage. Jones refers to Kurtz as "you" when she's really trashing Hellman. And Kurtz heartily defends the acerbic playwright, whom she met 20-odd years ago, even while admitting that she too once "bought 'Julia' hook, line and sinker."

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