Imaginary Friends, which is about those two mortal enemies, Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, is Nora Ephron’s first play, unfortunately. In the usual way, we would try to be kind about any first-time playwright who fouls up as badly as this. We might say, for instance, “We very much look forward to Ms. Ephron’s second play.” Or: “The novice dramatist, Nora Ephron, certainly has a future.” Or, if I were a close relative of hers, “Ms. Ephron’s take on Hellman and McCarthy as the Abbott and Costello of global literature is pretty unusual, and then some.”
But this is the same Nora Ephron who’s the screenwriter of the delightful When Harry Met Sally and Heartburn , and the director of Sleepless in Seattle , among other movies. She’s a big girl now. If I expected better from her first play, I dare say she did, too. But the last thing I anticipated was a level of infantilism that, frankly, made a mockery of the entire proceedings.
The convulsive McCarthy-Hellman wars might have been the last time that a literary battle actually counted for something in public life. The springboard to the play is McCarthy’s now-legendary attack on Hellman in 1979 on Dick Cavett’s television show that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman, at that time almost blind, was watching the show in bed and sued for $2.25 million, but died before the case came to trial. The uncompromising, near-bankrupted McCarthy ultimately won the day.
To take one whopping example of how Hellman fooled around with the truth, her self-aggrandizing memoir Pentimento lied about her “heroic” role saving Jews from the Nazis in World War II. She made herself out to be a heroine of history by stealing the life of the Resistance leader, Muriel Gardiner, and changing her name to Julia (played in the movie version by Vanessa Redgrave, with Jane Fonda as Hellman).
The play promised at least a fierce moral debate about the nature of literary lies and political history-a touch of G.B. Shaw in the night from the witty, if lightweight, Ms. Ephron. But, thuddingly directed by Jack O’Brien, it turns out to be that uneasy halfway-house concoction known as “a play with music.” A play with music is something that wants to be a musical, but it hasn’t figured out how. It’s only one of the problems. There’s also the doodling ditties of Marvin Hamlisch, with lyrics by Craig Carnelia, which sometimes appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with what’s supposed to be going on. The piece itself has borrowed a number of silly tricks from the worst of the once-glorious age of vaudeville. If you ever wish to know why vaudeville died, see Imaginary Friends .
To our discomfort and astonishment -and I assume theirs-Swoosie Kurtz as Lillian Hellman and Cherry Jones as Mary McCarthy transform the ladies into a bad vaudevillian turn. At the opening of Act II, for example, they emerge dressed as cute children in the most excruciating scene in the show to sing a song in baby talk to life-size dolls of themselves. They’re singin’ and dancin’ with their dollies down a country lane. The dollies are their “imaginary friends.”
Now, the chances of those acid-tongued battleaxes, McCarthy and Hellman, adoring their childhood dollies would seem a little remote from everything we know about them. Unless they were voodoo dolls with a thousand pins stuck in them. Either way, the ludicrous dollies are embarrassing. Let it charitably pass that the game Ms. Jones and Ms. Kurtz can’t really sing a note. Or that Ms. Kurtz in her unfortunate child’s frock bears more than a passing resemblance to Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? What on earth is going on here?
I belong to you
You belong to me
Sweeter than a yam
Or a jar o’ jam
At a jamboree
Icky wicky thoughts go wicky woo
With an imaginary friend
Let it never end
Let it never end
Oh, please let it end. But there’s more icky to wicky woo. Another vaudevillian scene follows, entitled “Fact and Fiction” in which-I wish I were kidding-two song-and-dance troupers named Frankie Fact and Dick Fiction perform with straw hats and canes and compete in the kind of challenge tap you might catch on a foggy night on a cruise ship.
Don Quixote has more to say on the tangled subject of fact and fiction in Man of La Mancha : “Facts are the enemies of truth.” Be that as it may, there’s a superior challenge tap between Hitler and Churchill in The Producers . But at least it’s clear that Ms. Ephron and her misguided director, Mr. O’Brien, have taken to heart Adolf Elizabeth Hitler’s wise philosophical comment on the state of the world: “The thing you gotta know is / Ev’rything is showbiz.”
Hence the vaudevillian duo, McCarthy and Hellman. The showbiz aspects of Celebrity become so unhinged that poor Harry Groener, trying to impersonate, among others, the drunk Dashiell Hammett, the conjuring Edmund Wilson and the bewildered Stephen Spender, takes a forlorn, existential solo about how unhappy he is playing them all. “If I could make you happy,” he sings miserably, “I would, but I can’t.”
And if he can’t, who can? But it was Ms. Ephron’s frivolous portrait of McCarthy and Hellman that jarred even more than our friends, Frankie Fact and Dick Fiction. It’s as if the ladies are appearing in a dated TV sitcom named Mary and Lily. Taking their bows, Ms. Jones and Ms. Kurtz revert to character, and the curtain descends on them bickering jokily with each other-the weary, empty-headed sitcom fade-out as the credits role. It’s wacky life with McCarthy and Hellman (who, in fact, met each other only twice).
Thank goodness the assured contribution of Anne Pitoniak brings such quiet, dignified authority to the role of the Resistance heroine, Muriel Gardiner. How Ms. Kurtz and Ms. Jones manage to keep their heads just above water must be put down to a minor miracle of survival and talent. But in truth, the two stars are mismatched. Ms. Kurtz-who looks nothing like Hellman, praise be-gives us a comic caricature of the “warm monster” (as Susan Sontag tagged Hellman); Ms. Jones-who bears a resemblance to the patrician McCarthy-plays her for real, though the reality is fuzzy soft-focus. Ms. Ephron has re-imagined her two vindictive literary lions as merely mischievously bitchy. Bitchiness becomes a legend most. Shucks, she’s saying, they’re just feisty, squabbling sisters under the skin. They dance, they sing, they write, they fight. The one wanted truth, the other stories. Who knows what truth is, anyway? Who doesn’t lie now and then, eh?
Imaginary Friends trivializes the broads and the issues. Mary McCarthy was a superior, caustic intelligence on a mission, and Lillian Hellman, a gifted self-inventor who lied for sport. But that isn’t the play Ms. Ephron wished to write. Apart from the vaudevillian turns and the dollies, she gives us earnest, potted history lectures on, say, Trotskyism versus Stalinism. No joy there. Also a slice of reductive pop Freudianism to tie the psychology into a tidy little bow, as well as three laborious Rashomon versions of a minor incident at Sarah Lawrence College concerning John Dos Passos and the Spanish Civil War. Meanwhile, the catfights roll merrily along.
“You’re always doing that!” protests Mary.
“Doing what?” demands Lillian.
“You always take over-”
“I do not.”
“You do, too.”
“No, I don’t-”
“Yes, you do …”
There they go again. And to that I say-
Icky wicky, wicky woo.
It’s only a point of view,
Happy holidays to you.