Premiere issue Autumn 2002

Ephron finds winning tale in feud

Imaginary Friends
Written by Nora Ephron
Directed by Jack O'Brien

Old Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatres complex
Balboa Park, San Diego, Calif.
Through Nov. 3

See profile of "Imaginary Friends."

It would seem that once again, Southern California audiences will get to see the latest Broadway hitefore it hits Broadway.

Nora Ephron's first foray into the world of stage is in its debut run at San Diego's The Globe Theatres — and is already booked into the Barrymore Theatre in New York for a December opening. But let the Big Apple wait a few months — for "Imaginary Friends" is a funny, intelligent, even sophisticated evening that draws an impressive wealth of American culture from what was at heart a shallow, petty feud.

Ephron shows the same flair for engaging repartee in "Imaginary Friends" as in her string of hit movies ("Sleepless in Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally," "You Have Mail"). Of course, in this case, Ephron is greatly assisted in her dialogue by the fact that her play is about two real-life writers, Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy — contributing two lifetimes' worth of quips and one-liners from which to draw.

Constructed around a late-in-life libel suit Hellman filed against McCarthy, "Imaginary Friends" catches up with the two literary giants in the afterlife, where Hellman asks McCarthy, "Did we ever meet?"

Only a few times in life did their paths cross, yet Ephron does a very good job of bringing out the intellectual and social overlaps of their orbits. She never lets the play get too heavy — in between intellectual discussions of Trotskyism and the Spanish Civil War are name-dropping accusations of who slept with whom. The leavening is what pulls these two characters out of celebrityhood and restores their flawed humanity.

Imaginary Friends Swoosie Kurtz's portrayal of Hellman is of a brilliant woman who remains insecure. She projects a competitive enjoyment in her sharp-tongued jabs at McCarthy, and manages to keep Hellman likeable — more likeable than Ephron's script seems to.

McCarthy is the more approachable character, and Cherry Jones plays it all warm and cuddly. Even in her attacks on Hellman, McCarthy comes off as above-board. Whether that's an accurate portrayal can't be answered except by those that knew the two women.

Kurtz and Jones show an equal adeptness at portraying their characters as little girls, young women and even old women. The gait is perfect for each age, the mannerisms true.

Robert Morgan's costumes are stellar, capturing eras from the early 20th century when Hellman and McCarthy were children, through the 1980s, when they were old and dressed accordingly. Their snazzier outfits from their younger adulthood did an outstanding job of conveying the fact that these women were celebrities at one time, famous and influntial writers.

The set by Michael Levine is a bit underwhelming. The constant presence of a heavy red curtain as backdrop lends a surreal edge to the production, as if reminding the audience that none of this is real. Still, it also grows monotonous after a while.

The new music by Marvin Hamlisch is light and accessible, and does the intended job of breaking up what could otherwise be the overwhelming prospect of these two writers talking about themselves and each other all night.

Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif.

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