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A CurtainUp California Review
Imaginary Friends

By Gordon Osmond

Tony-award winners Swoozie Kurtz and Cherry Jones are in town, lighting up our local Old Globe stage and heading for the Great White Way!

Having achieved phenomenal popular success with movies (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail) and books (Heartburn), Nora Ephron has written her first stage play. To hedge her bets a bit, Ephron asked the equally popular composer Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line, The Way We Were) to leaven the loaf with a tune or two.

Ephron chooses as her subject matter the well-publicized hatred between playwright/novelist Lillian Hellman (The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes, Pentimento) and critic/novelist Mary McCarthy (The Group, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood) which flowered into a lawsuit wherein Hellman sued McCarthy for $2.25 million for McCarthy having said of Hellman on a 1980 Dick Cavett telecast that: "Everything she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." The result is a "play with music" entitled Imaginary Friends which is having its world premiere out-of-town tryout at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre on its way to Broadway at the end of November.

Up to a point, the project progresses promisingly. At rise, we find our ladies, unaccountably framed in Judy-bulbs and fondling wigs which are never worn, or, indeed, seen again, dishing the dirt in the grand tradition of Mame Dennis and Vera Charles. We move smoothly to scenes from childhood (we all know, and certainly learn later, the importance of these childhoods), adult romance, and, finally, political involvement. Along the way, a small troupe of Broadway gypsies performs some well-integrated songs and provides body ballast for a delightful Sarah Lawrence College get-together which was the first meeting of the play's pro/an/tagonists.

Can it be that this highly accomplished team has actually delivered on its promise to produce not a play, not a musical, but "a play with music?" Ultimately, no.

From its outset Act II shows that the production has been hijacked by Mr. Hamlisch and select members of his troupe of gypsies. The plays breaks out into a rash of stand alone and largely incongruous musical numbers which seem concocted for the sole purpose of filling up a record album designed perhaps to defray the production's undoubtedly daunting costs. One of them, the title number, actually undercuts the central premise of the play-the imaginary friendship between Hellman and McCarthy-by prattling on about a child's fabrication of an imagined playmate. In another, "Smart Woman", a newborn soloist from the gypsy troupe goes on and on while the play's two principal assets sit listening and languishing.

After a further foray into an uncomfortable cross between vaudeville and conventional musical comedy when large stuffed figures (which seem to crop up in scene after scene to the point where they might have justifiably claimed program credit) dance on the toes of porteurs, we have a desiccated trial scene which didn't happen in life and shouldn't, in its present form, have happened on stage. The finale consists of an off-stage cat fight between the stuffed doll alter egos of Hellman and McCarthy. Having two women of wit, wisdom and letters slug it out physically, albeit offstage, is not just imaginary, it's artistically misguided pandering to that segment of the audience which doesn't for a moment understand the substance and potential of the play.

The production itself offers a mixed bag of vice and virtue. Michael Levine's creation of a fig tree and billowing curtains is miraculous. Video projections by Jan Hartley are used simply and effectively. Costuming is more problematic. Hellman, an heroically homely woman, is dressed and wigged to look like a very tasty blonde morsel whereas the more appealing McCarthy is, for the most part, dowdily dressed. Harry Groener, who had his fair share of trouble with dummies in the ill-fated "Sleight of Hand", serviceably performs all of the principal male roles and if you don't believe it from perusing the program, the playwright has him tell you so from the stage. His expertise as a song-and-dance man makes him a willing conspirator in efforts to derail the piece into musical comedy and when his big dramatic scene comes around, half of his lawyer's dialogue is given to his client.

Imaginary Friends has the feel of a work by a new playwright who was recently quoted as saying that she "got a taste of the freedom that theater offered. . . " What the playwright failed to recognize is that the theatre has its own rules, e.g., thematic and stylistic consistency. Director Jack O'Brien has perhaps been too overstretched with other highly commercial commitments to exercise a restraining influence.

Standing tall, representing the best of what the play does, and could, offer are the towering talents of Swoozie Kurtz as Hellman and Cherry Jones as McCarthy. Ms. Kurtz makes the absolute most of her killing retorts and Ms. Jones goes toe-to-toe with the set-ups. Their performances make the occasional pleasures of the evening very non-imaginary.

Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics: Craig Carnelia
Director: Jack O'Brien
Cast: Lillian Hellman (Swoosie Kurtz) Mary McCarthy (Cherry Jones) The Man (Harry Groener) A Woman (Anne Pitoniak) Ensemble: Anne Allgood, Bernard Dotson, Rosena M. Hill, Gina Lamparella, Dirk Lumbard, Peter Marx, Perry Ojeda, Karyn Quackenbush
Scenic Design: Michael Levine
Costume Design: Robert Morgan
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Jon Weston
Video Design: Jan Hartley
Orchestrations: Torrie Zito
Conductor: James Vukovich
Musical Director: Ron Melrose
Choreography: Jerry Mitchell
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one intermission
The Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego CA Ph: 619.239.2255
September 21 through November 3, 2002
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