A play about playwrights: Been there, done that, wake us up when it's over, right? But a play about two legendary warring female writers, written by one of today's leading female screenwriters, seemingly justifies the hype surrounding the latest Broadway-bound San Diego premiere. Nora Ephron, once a journalist, then a novelist, famously a screenwriter and director, makes her mark on the stage with a fabulous first stab, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia. Imaginary Friends is a punchy foray into what feels like Ephron's daydream, made solid with historical fact, punctuated by commentary on the human condition, all dolled up and dripping with panache. As luxurious folds of red fabric open onto the lives of the now-deceased authors Lillian Hellman (Swoosie Kurtz) and Mary McCarthy (Cherry Jones), Ephron breathes life into their memories, having the two embittered rivals wonder out loud at the beginning of the play, "Do you think we could have been friends?"
Entertained by Hellman's fabricated stories, Ephron had interviewed the literary star in the early 1970s, igniting a career-long interest in Hellman's work, her writing, and her public disputes with her contemporary, McCarthy. While it's a shame that the two are better recognized for their bitchy banter than their ways with words, Ephron couldn't resist the creative challenge of uniting the women in the ethers.
Poking fun at some of the conventions of theatre, Ephron casts Harry Groener in multiple roles, then has him arbitrarily intersect the drama with a jazzy little song-and-dance about the travails of playing all the men in the play. Ephron's whimsical mind also conjures up a fact-and-fiction song, a moment of sheer comic lunacy in which tap-dancers Fact (Dirk Lumbard) and Fiction (Peter Marx) illustrate the tendencies of Hellman and McCarthy to muddle the truth with imagination in their writing.
Accusations bounce back and forth until a clever recreation of the The Dick Cavett Show interview, when McCarthy said of Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman famously fired back with a libel suit for $2.25 million in damages but died before the case was heard. Five years later McCarthy died. With the audience as the jury, Ephron hosts the imaginary hearing.
Whether costumed in heavy herringbone suits as women in their 50s or in frilly dresses as adolescent girls, Kurtz and Jones leave their real-life friendship backstage, playing the competitive repartee with aplomb. Ephron takes a risk asking audiences to care about these two women; Kurtz and Jones make it easy.