Premiere issue Autumn 2002

Real-life literary feud leads Hollywood's Ephron to stage

See review of "Imaginary Friends."

Nora Ephron doesn't have anything to prove as a writer — not after a series of hit movies ("Sleepless in Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally," "You've Got Mail") and a nearly as impressive string of books ("Heartburn," "Crazy Salad").

And yet here she is tackling her first play, "Imaginary Friends" (openings in its world premiere at The Globe Theatres on Sept. 29). The story revolves around the very public feud between writers Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman, and the production features all new music by Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnella.

Still, given Ephron's record of success with books and movies, the the obvious question remains: Why the stage?

"I don't think there's any writer who doesn't have a fantasy about writing a play, and of course my parents (Phoebe and Henry Ephron) wrote plays before they wrote movies. So I grew up with a lot of exposure to theater.

For years I've been hoping I'd have an idea that turned out to be a play. But it seemed for quite a long time that plays were things that took place in country houses where there were a lot of French doors and people were sort of arbitrarily locked in — and that never happened to me."

Ephron said it was reading about McCarthy's life that sparked the idea for "Imaginary Friends."

"I had been reading about McCarthy — a couple of biographies about her had come out that were really good — and the woman who works with me, Mary Pay Walsh, said, 'Do you think there's a movie in her?'

"I said, 'No, the most interesting thing about McCarthy was the collision with Lillian Hellman.' I didn't see how that could be a movie, because they didn't really know each other. They weren't really together. For over a year, I thought maybe it could be sort of an educational television mini-series.

"Then somebody said to me one day, 'Could it be play?' And I said, 'How could it be a play? They were almost never together.' But then I thought, now they are together because they're both dead. I had a sudden vision of them meeting in the ladies room in hell.

"It was like I suddenly knew everything about the play without having written anything. I knew the first line of the play was going to be, 'Did we ever meet?' — I just didn't know which would say it."

Ephron said she began writing her first ever play shortly after her epiphany — and described the process as "Probably as much fun as I've ever had at a keyboard."

"They lived such fantastically rich lives, so that when you write about them you can't help but be grateful," Ephron said from rehearsal at the Globe. "They just didn't miss a trick. Whatever came along, they had something to do with. Whether it was the Left in the '30s, when the McCarthy period, or when fame became the currency. They lived extremely, rich 20th century lives."

While this is her first play, Ephron said she found the form liberating compared to a book or a movie.

"Because it's a play, I'm not as bound by facts as the others have been. It's imaginary, not journalism.

"A movie takes place in reality, or in some version of reality. I've written movies that could be plays. In fact, this summer we went to Tokyo to see the Japanese version of 'When Harry met Sally' as a play and it worked very nicely.

"But I don't think this could be a movie. It's very theatrical. The actresses play (their characters) from the age of 7 or 8 until their deaths. You certainly can't do that in a movie, but that's the fun of it."

Ephron said from the beginning she knew this was a play that would have songs in it, although it's not a musical. (The Globe is touting it as "A play with music.")

"I'd always wanted to work with Marvin Hamlisch. So I sent him the play, and he and Craig Carnella wrote back and said here's what we think. We pretty much agreed on where the songs should be, but they had better ideas!"

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