If the two women in Nora Ephron's "Imaginary Friends" were unknown intellectuals, would anybody care? As it happens, they are Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, who were writers of great interest in the mid-20th century. But it's possible that my question is still valid. McCarthy was an essayist of distinction, and her books about Italy remain great reading. (She did have some lapses. Somehow she was able to review the original 1947 production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," which she panned, without mentioning the actors.) By then, Hellman's reputation as a playwright was on the wane. She was still remembered for her first two plays, "The Children's Hour" (1934) and "The Little Foxes" (1939). But her stature was very high because she had stood up to the anti-Communist investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her somewhat fictional memoirs, "An Unfinished Life" and "Pentimento," came much later in her career. Both women enjoyed some notoriety toward the end of their lives when, in 1980, McCarthy, being interviewed by Dick Cavett, said of Hellman, "Everything she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"
Hellman sued, but died before it came to trial. This is a topic with potential, but Ephron has not managed to dramatize it. Neither can Swoosie Kurtz nor Cherry Jones, who play Hellman and McCarthy, respectively, make it compelling. Ephron spends a lot of time recapping the two women's careers, both literary and sexual. McCarthy had numerous distinguished writers as husbands and lovers, including Edmund Wilson and Philip Rahv. Hellman, of course, had Dashiell Hammett, who, as a wise friend of mine once noted, was a distinctive stylist before he met her, an alcoholic afterward. The only thing that gives the play a modicum of spine is the introduction of Muriel Gardiner, the American who, while studying psychoanalysis with Freud in Vienna in the '30s, became involved in anti-fascist activities. She was Hellman's model for "Julia," though Hellman denied this until the lawsuit, when she tried to gain Gardiner's cooperation. At any rate, the hero of "Julia" is not Julia; it's the self-aggrandizing Hellman. Ephron makes Gardiner articulate a theory about the childhood incidents that made Hellman an inveterate liar, McCarthy a relentless pursuer of truth. It might have made a nice essay. It never jells as a play. You can tell Ephron herself is desperate. The evening is full of contrivances. At one point, she even has the characters play with life-size dolls of themselves. Jones has an ironic smile and a physical ease that makes McCarthy's allure very understandable. Kurtz can handle all the tart lines Hellman utters very capably, but she comes nowhere near embodying the inner ugliness of her character. Harry Groener plays all the men in their lives. Because the writing reduces them to cartoons, there isn't really much he can do. Anne Pitoniak has an engaging playfulness as Gardiner. Lyricist Craig Carnelia and composer Marvin Hamlisch have written some incidental songs, which, while amiable, don't really lend much insight to the play. They are yet another diversionary tactic to distract us from noticing what is unmistakable: None of this adds up to a play.
Nora Ephron's "Imaginary Friends," which courageously opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre last night, is an imaginary play.
Or perhaps, because it has some tired and feeble music by Marvin Hamlisch coupled with sparkless lyrics by Craig Carnelia, it's an imaginary musical.
Whatever the case, it's awesomely awful despite the desperate ministrations of a talented cast that goes down with the ship showing a self-effacing gallantry.
No doubt you know all about playwright Lillian ("I will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion") Hellman and her feudin' and fightin' with Mary ("every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the' ") McCarthy.
You don't? Oops! You do and you couldn't give a damn? Oops again!
These are just two basic problems faced by distinguished first-time playwright (or playwright-with-music) Ephron.
She tries desperately to give the audience a quick biographical rundown. Much of the evening attempts to show how one writer's allegiance to fact and truth and the other's to fiction and storytelling were embedded, Freudian-style, in their unhappy childhoods.
Realizing the audience may not be as conversant with her heroines as she is herself, Ephron drops a few hints.
Characters say things like, "You have to explain who John Dos Passos is." Should you? In case you're at sea, an explanatory four-page timeline has been inserted in your Playbill.
Of course, you don't need a course in English history to enjoy the villainy of Shakespeare's "Richard III." But that's a pretty good play - this is a ludicrous one.
At one point, two guys called "Fact" and "Fiction" do a vaudeville song-and-dance number, and the stars dance with life-size dolls of Hellman and McCarthy.
The play - and its puerile songs - wanders up to its bathetic climax, which has McCarthy dissing Hellman's veracity on a TV show, and the libel action that followed.
Who cares? Well, the actors cared, as did the misdirected director, the normally admirable Jack O'Brien.
Those splendid actresses Swoosie Kurtz as Hellman and Cherry Jones as McCarthy work heartbreakingly hard to bring conviction to their roles, Kurtz with hard-boiled assurance and McCarthy with acid-tinged charm.
Harry Groener plays all the leading men in the play - one minute he's a horizontal Dashiell Hammett, then a paunchy Edmund Wilson and a wire-haired Norman Mailer - juggling all these balls with clownish distinction.
Dear old Anne Pitoniak has a feisty cameo in the court scene as Muriel Gardiner, the woman whose life Hellman apparently "adopted" as her own in Hellman's memoir, "Pentimento."
In reality, the suit never went to court because by then Hellman had died. But by then, the play itself had been dead for what seemed like hours.
And now, direct from the underworld, two august ladies of letters as you've never seen them before. Hear Mary McCarthy sing! Watch Lillian Hellman make like Baby Snooks! Gaze on as the writer of ''The Little Foxes'' and the author of ''The Group'' go at each other with tooth, claw and typewriter. And all on the stage of that cosmic show palace called hell.
In a Broadway season of anomalies that has embraced hip-hop poetry and Puccini opera, Nora Ephron's ''Imaginary Friends,'' which opened last night at the Barrymore Theater, still takes the prize for audacity. This ''play with music,'' which stars the invaluable Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones and is directed by Jack O'Brien, promised to be a hybrid of Shaw's ''Don Juan in Hell,'' Clare Boothe Luce's ''Women'' and a comic-strip version of The New York Review of Books.
Yet while it's a pleasure to watch Ms. Kurtz and Ms. Jones butt charismatic heads, ''Imaginary Friends'' isn't a show that leaves you gasping at its daring or chuckling over its cleverness. In chronicling a feud between two politically engaged, exceptionally feisty women within a literary world of men, Ms. Ephron makes her points dutifully, clearly and repetitively.
The show features music-hall numbers scored by Marvin Hamlisch, giant simulcast videos and gleams of the manicured wit you expect from Ms. Ephron, the canny essayist, screenwriter and film director (''Sleepless in Seattle''). Yet ''Imaginary Friends'' mostly feels like an especially jazzy class project. In trying to appeal to both those who are and those who are not familiar with the play's highbrow heroines, the show winds up sacrificing its dramatic energy to Cliff Notes-like expositions disguised in masquerade costumes.
''Imaginary Friends'' does score points for coming up with a new way to present that enduringly popular genre, Dead Celebrity Theater. While McCarthy, to my knowledge, has never been subjected to the ''Mark Twain Tonight!'' treatment, Hellman has already been reincarnated on and off Broadway in the persons of Zoe Caldwell and Linda Lavin. So in terms of subject, Ms. Ephron isn't exactly on virgin territory.
Her style, however, is another matter, and when you think about it, it makes sense. The events following the lawsuit that Hellman brought after McCarthy memorably characterized her as a liar on ''The Dick Cavett Show'' were drummed up to be the intellectual cat fight of the century. Why not go that extra step and retell the story as a Punch and Judy (or Judy and Judy) vaudeville, since so many people seem to have enjoyed it on that level?
When the show begins, it looks as if the approach might work. The set designer, Michael Levine, has come up with a vision of hell that is, of course, red, although not the orange-red of fire but the ruby red of old-time theater curtains. And there, preening in separate spotlights in the chicest outfits this side of a 1950's couture house, are Ms. Kurtz and Ms. Jones, brandishing both their cigarettes and their smiles like daggers.
If there's a touch of drag-queen exaggeration here, well, so what? This is show-biz, folks, and in American theater, everybody loves a bitch with style. And Ms. Kurtz and Ms. Jones have developed a charming rhythm of adversarial patter, suggesting characters who genuinely enjoy their anger and resentment.
In their opening dialogue, Hellman and McCarthy swap conflicting accounts of their first meeting, thus setting up the play's big theme: fact versus fiction. (Later there will be an allegorical music-hall number on the subject, performed with straw hats and canes by Dirk Lumbard and Peter Marx.) Throughout the evening, McCarthy accuses Hellman of presenting fiction as fact, while Hellman responds that McCarthy presents fact as fiction.
The show is at its best when it is able to find expressly theatrical forms that embody the distortions of these clashing points of view. It is delightful, for example, to see Ms. Kurtz looking and sounding like Shirley Temple when she delivers Hellman's account of her New Orleans childhood as presented in her memoir ''An Unfinished Woman.'' The artificiality of the little-girl pluckiness immediately makes the reminiscence suspect.
And in the evening's most successfully realized scene, the two women are allowed to stage-manage their respective accounts of that first acrimonious meeting in 1948 at Sarah Lawrence College, marshaling the show's ensemble members to embody shifting versions of an encounter that nobody seems to recall in the same way. I especially enjoyed Ms. Kurtz as she asked the performers representing a group of students to try on different attitudes of Hellman worship.
But other scenes that should be sure-fire, like the women's cataloguing their famous lovers or responding to the red-baiting of the McCarthy era, are only vaguely diverting. And there's not much urgency in the two strands that are meant to give the play its dramatic payoff: the exposure of the falsehood behind Hellman's autobiographical story ''Julia,'' and the ''Rosebud''-like revelation of the Freudian reasons behind the women's hatred.
Mr. Hamlisch's songs, with lyrics by Craig Carnelia, are tuneful, jinglelike numbers that add little in period flavor or character definition. And some of them simply slow things down to no purpose. In one, the stars, portraying their childhood selves, dance with rag dolls. In another, Harry Groener, who portrays the men in both women's lives, does a solo about the thanklessness of his role.
As you've no doubt gathered, ''Imaginary Friends'' is not a two-character play. The full ensemble, which features the wonderful Anne Pitoniak, helps illustrate the heroines' exercises in self-justification. But it's Ms. Jones and Ms. Kurtz, two of the most engaging and protean actresses on the American stage, who give the evening what glow of vitality it has.
Both invariably find the postures to convey their characters at different points, from scrappy little-girlhood to soigné middle age. (The sociologically evocative costumes are by Robert Morgan.) And their easy, bickering camaraderie, which brings to mind Hope and Crosby, keeps the audience on their side.
Ms. Kurtz has more to work with, since Hellman was a natural-born expert on self-dramatization. And this actress translates her character's flashiness with details that flirt slyly with cartoonishness: that gravelly voice, that hair-trigger timing, those dismissive flicks of the hand.
The ever-luminous Ms. Jones -- who, unlike Ms. Kurtz, does indeed resemble the woman she portrays -- has been assigned the formidable task of scaling up to Broadway proportions a figure of patrician understatement. It's not surprising that she holds her own. But there's an intense naturalism in her portrayal that doesn't quite square with Ms. Kurtz's drolly drawn caricature.
It's not that either actress isn't doing her very best with what she's been given. But ultimately what they've been given are glossy paper dolls of parts. Though Ms. Ephron has obviously done her homework and borrowed copiously from the standard biographies and both characters' memoirs, she never makes the leap of imagination and empathy that would turn Hellman and McCarthy into women you have to care about.
In the play's conclusion, which evokes ''No Exit,'' McCarthy asks Hellman, ''What did we do to deserve each other?'' Hellman responds dryly, ''Everything, apparently.'' There's a strong implication that ''Imaginary Friends'' agrees with Hellman's answer, and there is little affection in such a judgment. For all the radiance of its leading ladies, ''Imaginary Friends'' never generates much heat.
The noisy shoes with the metallic heels make only a few brief appearances, but nevertheless there's a whole lot of tap-dancing going on at the Barrymore Theater, home to "Imaginary Friends," Nora Ephron's odd doodle of a play about dueling literary lionesses Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy.
The tap-dancing? That would be, most obviously, Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia's songs, which are performed by a small but lively chorus of singers and dancers. Doing foxtrots of their own are the bright, clever and mobile sets by Michael Levine, wrapped in enough red velvet to blanket Broadway. Robert Morgan's pretty silk dresses and chic wool suits provide some diversions, as do a pair of puppets -- yes, puppets -- who make a few appearances.
All of the above is beautifully orchestrated by high-flying director Jack O'Brien ("Hairspray") to provide a splashy backdrop for the hard-working performers at center stage, Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones, two beaming bright lights of the contemporary stage.
But all this theatrical ingenuity and allure is, in the end, little but fancy window dressing. It feels like a diversionary tactic to distract us from the inevitable discovery that at the center of all this color and movement is a superficial, theatrically lifeless text. Making the move from screen to stage, Ephron proves unable to manufacture a viable drama from her meaty material, which takes as its natural jumping-off point the lawsuit filed by Hellman over McCarthy's infamous announcement on Dick Cavett's TV show that every word Hellman wrote was a lie, "including 'and' and 'the.' "
That scandalous moment in American literary history is re-enacted fairly early on in "Imaginary Friends" (with Jones spliced into the video opposite Cavett), but it also provides the play's climax. In between, we romp, in roughly chronological order, through the lives of the famous playwright, who was possibly more famous for her self-serving autobiographies, and the somewhat less well-known novelist and memoirist, who topped bestseller lists with the soapy novel about her Vassar days, "The Group."
Special focus comes to rest on the first meeting between the two, when McCarthy accused an already established Hellman of lying about John Dos Passos' motives to entertain a crop of schoolgirls, as well as incidents from the childhood of both women that are presented as having deep implications for their emotional and intellectual development. McCarthy was accused by her disciplinarian uncle, who raised her after the sudden death of both her parents, of stealing a tin butterfly from one of her brothers. She didn't do it; hence her lifelong championing of truth-telling. Frolicking in a fig tree one day, Hellman spied her daddy kissing someone he shouldn't. Her nurse told her to fib about it -- and Hellman just kept on fibbing.
Those tidy little explanations come toward the end of the play. While we're actually witnessing Kurtz and Jones separately re-enact these childhood traumas, in little-girl dresses, more than once, the events don't have much impact -- we mostly wonder at all this bother about the tin butterfly and the fig tree (the latter actually gets its own song in Hamlisch and Carnelia's pleasant-enough pastiche score).
And yet even the more obviously momentous turning points in these writers' lives are mostly reduced to comical cartoons. Hellman's affair with Dashiell Hammett, McCarthy's marriage to Edmund Wilson, their various literary successes and political set-tos -- all make appearances in vignettes staged by O'Brien with as much vaudevillian flair as he can muster. But one can only wonder if the lives of these two complicated, intellectually formidable women are best served by being presented in the format of a TV variety show. (A sample bit finds McCarthy musing, "For many years, most of my life, really, I tried to figure out why I married Edmund Wilson. He was, of course, brilliant. Say something brilliant, Edmund." "Something brilliant," he says.)
The songs, while charmingly performed, generally feel tangential to the proceedings, even when they take off from central themes, as in "Fact and Fiction," in which a pair of hoofers embodying those two entities sing a duet. "A fraud is a fraud," sings Mr. Fact. "What if it takes a fib to get the folks to applaud?" retorts his partner.
When they are directly addressing the audience, or sniping at each other, the women often display the sharp wit we expect. Ephron peppers the dialogue with amusing flourishes, as when Lillian chastises Mary for moving to Paris: "Always a mistake to fall in love if it means giving up a rent-stabilized apartment in New York City." Or Mary, speaking of the women's diverging politics during the rose-colored days of the 1930s, says, "I would never have made a true Marxist -- it's something you have to take up early, like ballet." (That line is a direct McCarthy quote.) But both characters spend far too much of the time playing tour guide to their lives ("In 1963, I published a bestseller called 'The Group.' It was made into a movie, It was a novel about a group of women who'd gone to Vassar together. …"). In the end, we have a fine sense of what they did, but less insight into who they were.
This is not to slight the work of Kurtz and Jones, who are engaging tour guides. Kurtz nicely evokes Hellman's mannish manner, brandishing her ever-present cigarette like a Colt .45 and barking out Hellman's retorts in a smoky drawl. Jones naturally exudes an intelligence that makes her a good fit for the famously "whip-smart" McCarthy. The feline smile and twinkling eyes are those of a woman savoring her next bon mot. But the actresses must labor pretty hard to animate the exposition-heavy text, and the format gives them little scope to really get into the hearts or minds of the characters.
The play darkens in tone toward the close, as both women muse on the quirks in their characters that made them peculiarly susceptible to each other. After a fantasy courtroom scene in which McCarthy calls to the witness stand the woman whose life story apparently was swiped by Hellman for the famous Julia in her memoir "Pentimento," McCarthy suggests the fictional Julia "was the person you might have been if you hadn't been the person you were." Hellman then asks, "Who would you have been? If they hadn't lied to you?" "A better novelist, perhaps?" McCarthy replies.
In fact, both women were brilliant enough as it was, which is why Ephron's play is such a disappointment. Between them they constitute a veritable encyclopedia of the literary and political history of 20th-century America, so it is surprising indeed that in "Imaginary Friends," they come across as little more than a peppy pair of intellectual paper dolls.