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A CurtainUp Review
Imaginary Friends

Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'
--- Mary McCarthy's infamous putdown of Lillian Hellman during a 1980 television interview with Dick Cavett.
Many of the younger people seeing Nora Ephron's factional chronicle of writers Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman never saw the interview on the Dick Cavett show that exploded into one of the most famous modern literary feuds of the twentieth century. For that matter, were it not for his stint in The Rocky Horror Show, Dick Cavett's name wouldn't make too many bells ring.

Both Ephron and director Jack O'Brien have been quoted as saying that audiences require no familiarity with McCarthy and Hellman's work and lives to enjoy Imaginary Friends as a story about two women shaped by their different but equally unsettled childhoods, their looks (McCarthy was a beauty, Hellman was not), and the men in their lives. This may be true though I do think at least a nodding acquaintance with these literary lionesses enhances one's viewing experience. I also think that Ephron's first venture into playwriting is clever enough to make for a highly theatrical and engaging two hours. That said, this lost slice of life among the literari is likely to meet with a mixed response. Some, this viewer included, will see the music and puppetry that peppers the text as fun and adventurous, while others will view it as a means for bolstering the weaknesses of a first play.

The two major reasons to see Imaginary Friends are of course Cherry Jones and Swoosie Kurtz who do the honors as McCarthy and Hellman. Jones is seductively slick as McCarthy, a beauty who stored her verbal poisan darts behind an all-knowing smile. Kurtz, who is far more attractive than her real life role model, nevertheless nails the Hellman persona with tough, acerbic wit and more snarling than smiling.

Fortunately for Broadway audiences the director and playwright paid attention to some of the complaints about the play's pre-Broadway San Diego run. Chief of these pertained to the life-sized rag puppets as overdone and under-integrated into the script. Our San Diego critic would thus find the Imaginary Friends that just opened at the Ethel Barrymore quite a different and decidedly improved play than the one he reviewed at the Globe.

The Mary-Lillian rag dolls now make just two appearances and those work much more organically with the script. Instead of a denouement in which these alter egos literally duke it out, Ms. Ephron now has a firmer grip on the theme implied by the title -- the idea that these women had enough in common for friendship but too many differences of opinion and well-honed competitive instincts to make such a scenario likely. Since these were hardly women who would resort to physical fighting, the rag doll battle of the San Diego production must have been silly and theatrically unsound. Mary and Lillian now seal the imaginary friendship idea with a brief but dramatic kiss on the lips and there's a bittersweet ending that has these dueling grand dames pondering what might have been if their being friends had been more than a possibility imagined by Ephron.

The half a dozen songs, composed by Marvin Hamlish and with lyrics by Craig Carnelia, add considerably to the show's entertainment value though occasionally these musical interludes do interrupt the flow of the story line. The delightful though somewhat overly long soft shoe routine in which Dirk Lumbard is Fact and, Peter Marx Fiction aptly illustrates the crucial divide between the compusilvely truthful McCarthy and the faction prone Hellman. The songs overall entertainingly echo the vaudevillian brouhaha of the headline making feud.

There's no song list as with a regular musical but there's dancing to go with the songs. This is charmingly choreographed by Jerry Mitchell and pushes the envelope of the "play with music " genre though I doubt that it will seed a cast album.

The song and dance ensemble headed by Harry Groener, couldn't be better. Groener proves his acting mettle by playing all the male parts (from McCarthy's razor strap wielding uncle to Phillip Rahv, her "first Jew,", to Hellman's long-time companion, Dashiell Hammett). Jones and Kurtz get to sing at the top of the second act but, since neither has a particularly good voice, their rendition of the title song mercifully segues into a conclusion by the ensemble.

Veteran actress Anne Pitoniak appears briefly but memorably as psychoanalyst Muriel Gardiner, whose memoir, Code Name Mary, exposed the Julia in Pentimento to be fictionalized rather than a friend of Hellman's. Her understated moment as a witness in a mock courtroom scene stopped the show for a deserved round of applause at last Saturday's performance. Ironically, while Gardiner's book set the record straight it has slipped out of print while the discredited Pentimento is still on book store shelves.

Not the least of the show's assets derives from the inventive staging. Besides its traditional function, the bright red curtain serves as a backdrop for Jan Hartley's well chosen video projections and in one instance flutters to evoke the sense of being on a speeding train.

Michael Levine's set design includes a fig tree that's spectacular enough to warrant its own song, "Fig Tree Rag." Another delightful prop is a rollout platform for the Sarah Lawrence scene in which the lack of female students to listen to Hellman's lecture is amusingly filled out by male ensemble members in kerchiefs. The complementary colors and styles of Robert Morgan's costumes effectively underscore the overall idea of these complicated women's similarities and differences.

Time and the box office receipts will tell if this vaudevillian biodrama about two literary luminaries whose fame had already dimmed by the time they died will attract enough audiences to still be around at awards time. If the show is a real rather than imagined success, both Cherry Jones and Swoosie Kurtz are both likely to be nominated for Best Actress. Fortunately, this would not activate the little green monster syndrome since, unlike McCarthy and Hellman, Jones and Kurtz are real rather than imaginary friends.

Book by Nora Ephron
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Choreography by Jerry Mitchell
Directed by Jack O'Brien
Cast: Swoosie Kurtz (Lillian Hellman), Cherry Jones (Mary McCarthy) (Harry Groener (The Man), Anne Pitoniak (A Woman).
Ensemble: Anne Allgood, Bernard Dotson, Rosena M. Hill, Gina Lamparella, Dirk Lumbard, Peter Marx, Perry Ojeda, Jim Osorno, Susan Pellegrino, Karyn Quackenbush, Melanie Vaughn
Set Design: Michael Levine
Costume Design: Robert Morgan
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Jon Weston
Video Projections: Jan Hartley
Orchestrations: Torrie Zito
Conductor: Ron Melrose
Musical Direction/Supervision & Dance Arrangements: Ron Melrose
Band: Conductor/piano/Ron Melrose; Assistant conductor -- Jonathan Smith; Trumpet -- Hollis Burridge; Trombone/tuba--Randy Andos; saxophone/woodwinds -- Charles Pillow; Drums/percussions-- Michael Keller; bass--Mary Ann McSweeney; guitar/banjo/ukelele--Brian Koonin
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, includes one intermission
Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. 212-239-6200

From 11/25/02; opening 12/12/02
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 7th press performance.
Closing 2/16/03

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