An Uncivil War

An Uncivil War Legendary literary figures Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy battle in Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Nora Ephron was 11 years old when, in May 1952, playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman sent a letter advising the House Committee on Un-American Activities: "I am not willing, now or in the future, to bring bad trouble to people who, in my past association with them, were completely innocent of any talk or any action that was disloyal or subversive . . . I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions . . . "

Ephron was 38 when, in 1980 on Dick Cavett's television show, novelist and critic Mary McCarthy called Hellman a "tremendously overrated . . . bad . . . dishonest writer," and to Cavett's inquiry: "What is dishonest about her?" followed up with: "Everything . . . I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

How old Swoosie Kurtz or Cherry Jones were on either of those occasions I do not know and, since they are actresses, am too polite to ask, but at a rehearsal break of Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends, a play (graced with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Craig Carnelia) about the Hellman/McCarthy uncivil wars, Jones, the Mary McCarthy of the enterprise, replied to a question with the news that she had never been in anything by Lillian Hellman — "nor have I wanted to be." Kurtz, the Lillian Hellman of Imaginary Friends, did a double take, blinked, and said, "I beg your pardon?" Playwright Ephron, facing the two actresses across a worktable, looked a bit surprised too, but — possibly with some difficulty — held her tongue.

"No," said Cherry Jones. "I'm not a fan. As a lesbian, I find The Children's Hour unbearable. That suicide. And The Little Foxes . . . " She let it trail away. "But I do like 'Pentimento.'"

As it happens, Kurtz herself has never been in a play of Lillian Hellman's, but she once did meet the lady. "I was actually reading 'Pentimento' while doing Virginia Woolf with Nichols and May at the Long Wharf, and Mike brought her around. I guess this was 1980. I was dazzled by her," says the not easily dazzled Kurtz. Nineteen-eighty was also the year that Hellman sued McCarthy, Cavett and the broadcasting company for libel. But four years later, at 79, lifelong chain-smoker Hellman died, and the suit evaporated. Five years later, 77-year-old McCarthy, that glamorous, truth-worshipping, uncharitable product of a Catholic girlhood, herself was dead.

It was in 1973, shortly after the publication of "Pentimento" — a book in which the author created the fictitious or non-fictitious portrait of her heroic anti-Nazi friend Julia, or stole it from somebody else's life — that Nora Ephron met Hellman: "I was working at Esquire, and we had bought two chapters of 'Pentimento,' and I loved them, so I arranged to do an interview for The New York Times. I went up to where she was on Martha's Vineyard . . . and I just loved her." Two beats. "So sue me."

Fact and fiction, fiction and fact. They interweave throughout Imaginary Friends, as they did throughout the lives of McCarthy, who was stunning to look at, and Hellman, who wasn't — though to the end of her life Hellman had no difficulty getting and bedding a man. Indeed, that's what their whole adversarial relationship and this whole play-with-music is all about: the beauty question (a little) and fact-or-fiction (a lot).

"Come," says Ephron, there in the rehearsal building, echoed by Jones and Kurtz, "come and see the tap dancers."

Two floors down, Peter Marx and Dirk Lumbard, in T-shirts and straw hats, are being put through a rapid-fire song and dance by choreographer Jerry Mitchell. Lumbard is Fact, Marx is Fiction.

At times we tend to tangle, / There's friction in the act / 'Cause 'Fiction' plays it fast and loose / And 'Fact' is so exact.

Speaking of fact and fiction, a pivotal scene in Imaginary Friends has to do with McCarthy's pre-rehearsal of her famous — okay, notorious — statement on the Cavett show. McCarthy, you see — uncompromising, fact-driven Mary McCarthy — had, days before going on Cavett, tested on a friend, polished, sharpened the original "Everything she writes is false including 'and' and 'but'" to "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

A small thing, but to a writer — and Nora Ephron is a very good writer – no small thing. This, with or without music, is Ms. Ephron's first play. "I'd been thinking about Mary and Lillian and this historic, volcanic crash that came at the end of their lives, but I didn't know what to do with it. Then I went to see Dirty Blonde [Claudia Shear's take on Mae West], which is biographical and sweet and they sing from time to time. So I thought that even though this [McCarthy/Hellman] could be a serious play, it might be nice if itwasn't just talking.

"I wrote it — well, I was on fire, what can I tell you? — 12, 13 hours a day for seven weeks. It was bliss. When I didn't feel like writing, I could just open one of their books. There were a million things these two women disagreed about, but truth vs. storytelling, that's the big one. That's what's so moving: They're both right, and they're both wrong."