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Queens of the Barb

Theater Review

In 'Imaginary Friends,' Nora Ephron turns the war of words between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy into a smart comedy that revels in wit.

October 01, 2002|SEAN MITCHELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO--There may be no business like show business, but neither is there any feud like a literary feud, and Nora Ephron, in writing her first play, has convincingly made one into the other.

"Imaginary Friends," her dramatization of the parallel and conflicting lives of Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, is a feast of wit and language drawn from the words of her famous protagonists but smartly shaped into a serious comedy with music (a handful of songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia) that grows into a hair-pulling duel even Don King could appreciate.

In this out-of-town opening that is headed to Broadway in December, Swoosie Kurtz plays the craggy, contentious playwright-memoirist Hellman, and Cherry Jones is the formidable lady who was McCarthy, the critic and novelist. The two stage veterans prove superb, embodying this pair of philosophically opposed American writers who barely knew each other until a simmering enmity between them boiled over into a public grudge match late in their lives. Their relentless parry and thrust are so brutally in sync that the two actresses will have to share any awards that come their way, as some surely will.

Ephron, screenwriter of "When Harry Met Sally ...," seizes upon the inciting incident of McCarthy's denouncing Hellman as a liar on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1980 and works backward, filling in their biographies from a vantage point beyond the grave. As their individual life stories unfold on a stage often bare except for the backdrop of an enormous red curtain (suggesting that they didn't make it to heaven), the two wrestle with each another at every step down memory lane.

Recalling a more decorous time, Jones, as McCarthy, speaks with a lyrical precision that is a model of elocution, mincing Hellman with each carefully chosen syllable. But Kurtz, as the prepossessing author of the Broadway hits "The Children's Hour" and "Watch on the Rhine," gamely counterpunches with a cigarette-flavored growl that is wounding in its own way. They seem evenly matched--and would a dramatist have it any other way?

This battle of wits never took place, but it might have, Ephron suggests, much as Steve Martin imagined the meeting of Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in his "Picasso at the Lapin Agile."

Whether anyone remembers their work or that Hellman was a Stalinist and McCarthy a Trotskyite ("I was the palest of pinkos") in the 1930s hardly matters after a while because Ephron and director Jack O'Brien ("Hairspray," "The Full Monty") have made their intellectual catfight funny way beyond politics and the Partisan Review. The women's ferocious but neatly calibrated put-downs of each other become linguistic blood sport. And wholly entertaining it is.

Repeatedly, McCarthy accuses Hellman of writing fiction and calling it fact, while Hellman accuses McCarthy of writing fact and calling it fiction. Therein lies the play's unsolved mystery, brought to life memorably in a song-and-dance number with nimble ensemble members Peter Marx and Dirk Lumbard, in straw hats, canes and tap shoes, squaring off as Fact and Fiction.

McCarthy hits Hellman with the charge that she fabricated the incident in her memoir "Pentimento" that became the movie "Julia," arranging for herself the glorious role of saving Austrian Jews from the Nazis. Hellman reminds McCarthy that her thinly disguised novel about her Vassar classmates, "The Group," was "reviewed viciously by some of your best friends."

And so it goes, one delicious barb after another, funnier no doubt in Ephron's imaginary dialogue than it would have been to either woman in the flesh.

"Was there a time when we might have been friends?" Hellman asks, and that tantalizing possibility hovers over the evening as the clash of preening egos masks similarities they seem to have overlooked (although in death it might be a little late to find them). Their multiple husbands and lovers become the subject of more argument, and the accusation is made by each that the other married for career advancement more than love. Whether Hellman did or did not sleep with writer Philip Rahv becomes a recurring gag, used in the lyric, "I ran the gamut from Rahv to Hammett."

Another stage-seasoned actor, Harry Groener, provides a comic star turn as all the men in their lives, including critic Edmund Wilson (married to McCarthy) and writer Dashiell Hammett (Hellman's lover) and most amusingly as pretentious Rahv and absent-minded poet Stephen Spender.

The workmanlike tunes by Hamlisch and Carnelia mainly provide an excuse for light comic relief and mindless dancing--an occasional break from the battering of wits. But the lyrics are suitably wry in their own right, with the exception of an all-too-earnest number, "Smart Women," sung ably by Rosena M. Hill, that appears to be an attempt to remember the challenges that these writers faced in pre-feminist America.

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