It was fertile but rocky ground to plow. Two fascinating, larger-than-life women. Literary lionesses. Lifelong social-political-personal rivals. Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. There was just one problem: they’d only been in the same room together once or twice in their lives.
Acclaimed screenwriter/director Nora Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail”) remained enthralled and undaunted. She’d written about smart, strong women before (Karen Silkwood in “Silkwood,” herself in “Heartburn”). She reasoned that Hellman and McCarthy were together now, forever, in death. So she set her first stage play, “Imaginary Friends,” in hell, where, “No Exit”-like, they were doomed to confront each other for eternity.
Coming to playwriting as a first-timer, Ephron freely took liberties and chances. She broke the fourth wall, and broke with dramatic convention. She called it a ‘play with music,’ inserting songs at various points — some commenting on the action (the serious “Smart Women,” the funny vaudeville number “Fact and Fiction”), some part of the action (the classy beguine, “A Smoke, A Drink and You”), some just setting the scene (“Fig Tree Rag,” highly reminiscent of “Ragtime’s” “Gettin’ Ready Rag”) and some unrelated to anything but the title (the very silly “Imaginary Friends”). Those most integrated into the action fared best.
Ephron gathered together some of the best in the business to see her through her first stage experience: much-feted Globe Theatres director Jack O’Brien, award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch (“A Chorus Line” and “Sweet Smell of Success”), lyricist Craig Carnelia (“Sweet Smell of Success”), and stellar, Tony-winning actors Cherry Jones (as Mary McCarthy)and Swoosie Kurtz (Lillian Hellman), as well as Tony-nominated Harry Groener (to play all the men in their lives).
In this enigmatic, often frustrating play, the two women stand in a glorious, red-satin Hades (design by Michael Levine) and they rarely look at each other. The music sometimes works, often not, especially in the portentous presentation of the sometimes-illuminating “Smart Women,” and in the delightful but unnecessary the final soft-shoe number, an obvious gift to Harry Groener, who sings it wonderfully but keeps us wondering what exactly the song is doing here.
It’s rare that I go to a show more than once. But when I saw “Imaginary Friends” on opening night, I felt that it needed so much work, I wanted to go back and see what had changed before the world premiere headed off to New York (opening on Broadway 12/12/02).
There were many minor alterations, only some for the better. Many aspects still need to be changed if the show is to have a lasting life in New York. What remains most disturbing is that this is such rich material — fascinating women who led fascinating lives. Between them, they wrote some 50 books. But in this 2 1/2 hour cat-fight, we get too little of their depth and intelligence and too much of their rivalry, bickering and bitchiness. When, in the final moments, the typewriter effect (which has been inventively used to set scenes throughout the evening) projects the names of all the plays, essays, novels and memoirs the two prolific powerhouses had created, it’s shocking — impossible to believe that these two seemingly shallow, competitive broads could have produced anything worthwhile; it appeared as if they’d spent their lives sticking their tongues out at each other.
Therein lies the problem. Their rivalry wasn’t constant, but its culmination has linked them for life. In 1980, Mary McCarthy, then age 68, went on The Dick Cavett Show and spit out one of the most acerbic insults in literary history. She said of Lillian Hellman, “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.” Lillian Hellman, age 75, promptly sued McCarthy for libel, to the tune of $2.25 million. It was a scandal. Literary and political heavy-hitters lined up vocally behind one or the other. Hellman died before the suit ever came to court, but the battle had some significance — especially to Nora Ephron. It was all about what writing is all about — honesty vs. imagination. What is truth anyway? Who can draw a definitive line between fact and fiction, once a writer puts pen to paper? Narrative of any sort is ultimately filtered through the narrator’s perception.
This is really the crux of the play, and the issue of greatest concern to the playwright, but it gets lost in the backbiting. We’re exhausted by all the rag-dolls and fig trees and replaying of childhood memories. And the so-called ‘smoking gun’ toward the end, where, in a courtroom simulation, psychologist Muriel Gardiner (veteran actor Anne Pitoniak) comes forward to tell her life story, which was obviously the source for Hellman’s supposedly autobiographical story, “Julia’ (made famous in a movie of the same name, starring Jane Fonda), the impact of the revelation is diluted by Gardiner’s subsequent psychobabble. In a shockingly simplistic Freudian analysis, she ‘shrinks’ the two women (literally and figuratively) by saying that their childhoods of being lied to or being forced to lie led to their individual, unswerving devotion to imagination (even in memoirs, as was the case with Hellman) or truth (even, poorly disguised, in fiction, as McCaruthy had done with “The Group” and other novels). By then, we hardly care. And it’s a shame. This could have been such a rich opportunity to explore the issue of “Smart Women” in high (and competitive) places. And to examine, in some insight-producing manner, the writer’s dilemma about drawing the line between fact and fantasy.
If this is to be the rewarding theatrical experience it’s crying out to be, the second act needs considerably more editing. The opening number (“Imaginary Friends,” where the two actors are forced to sing, with and to their life-size, lookalike dolls) should be scrapped. Omit the fig tree and the dolls altogether in the second act. And make us care — about these women, and their intelligence, and the difficult job they had of staying famous in a man’s world, about the difficult choices a writer makes with every word.
In the last revision I saw (which was several days before the final performance, by which time additional changes had been made), there seemed to be four or five potential endings. In one, after a particularly brutal name-calling session, the women kissed. On the mouth. Huh? Where did that come from? And why? A through-line of the play is ‘Could we ever have been friends?’ It’s an interesting question, but isn’t explored in any satisfying depth. This was an odd and unnerving direction to take the issue.
The play had a better ‘button’ at the end, when each ‘battleship’ (that metaphor courses throughout as well) stands her ground: “I still believe in truth,” says Mary McCarthy. “And I still believe in imagination,” counters Hellman. That reminds us what the play was really about.
There are so many marvelous ingredients in this production, with its witty dialogue, spectacular performances, imaginative direction, wonderful period costumes, inventive scenic design and evocative lighting. Maybe all those big names and striking images will enchant New York audiences. Truth is, right now, that seems like a fantasy.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.