Imaginary friends, real life Enemies

    Many of us may remember having imaginary friends as children, but good grief, they were never as screwed up as the ones portrayed in “”Imaginary Friends,”” now playing at The Globe Theatres.

    This new play with music (careful there, it’s not a musical) written by Nora Ephron, (“”When Harry Met Sally,”” “”Sleepless in Seattle””) traverses through an imaginary relationship between 20th century writers Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. Although they hardly knew one another, that minor detail didn’t stop them from hating each other.

    To understand the premise of the play, one needs to understand the history and context of the authors. Lillian Hellman was a celebrated wit who wrote such plays as “”The Children’s Hour”” and her famous memoir “”Pentimento.””

    Mary McCarthy (Cherry Jones) and Lillian Hellman (Swoosie Kurtz) detested one another until the day they each died. Literally. Both were prominent figures in the literary, social and political worlds that they circulated in. Shocking stories, plays, novels and their tempers made them famous to the public and to each other.

    Sharing their opposing views, each publicly criticized the other from before World War I untill the late 1980s, when they both died.

    So this play takes these two legendary — and now nearly forgotten — figures and places them head to head in a dramatic and comedic play that traces their lives and politics when they meet in Hell.

    Ridiculous? It sounds like it would be at first, but the idea works – for the most part. In no other medium could this have been tangible, and this may have worked better if only those odd intermittent musical numbers could have just tied in a little bit better. Because they were sometimes a bit far-reaching (imagine two men resembling singers from a barbershop quartet claiming to be “”Fact”” and “”Fiction”” and then dueling it out by tap dancing and singing) and extravagant, they detracted from the play, which would have been funny even without these scenes.

    Besides the little musical diversions, Ephron’s script retold the history of the women and the politics of the time remarkably well. The ever-changing costumes were consistently historically accurate, and Kurtz and Jones both played their respective roles perfectly.

    Kurtz was ideal as the cynical and sometimes stoic Hellman. All of her sultriness and wicked humor oozed from her with ease, but she could turn around and play a Southern 6-year-old claiming to be “”the sweetest smelling baby in New Orleans”” just as easily.

    McCarthy was a much more serious person in life, and Jones portrayed her as a troubled yet strong and brilliant woman. Although she had a beautiful voice and easy manner, Jones could in no way compete with the demanding stage presence of her counterpart, Kurtz.

    In addition, Harry Groener was hilarious as every male character in the play. He was dangerously creepy as McCarthy’s abusive uncle, yet he was also incredibly funny as the drunken Dasheill Hammett.

    Although some of the musical numbers were simply puzzling, many of them added to the play immensely. The humorous and flirtatious number with the 1930s bartenders helped create an atmosphere that could not have been achieved otherwise. And just as important, the song introducing the McCarthy trials was as serious and dramatic as the other was comic. Each of these sets up an ambiance that becomes integral to the scenes that follow, whether they are humorous or tragic. Incredibly, the play manages to be both, which is no easy feat.

    The imaginative use of different mediums like projections and puppets were innovative and helped in producing a setting and adding humor where needed.

    Ultimately, the play aptly represents the two intellectual women, their lives and loves, and even those who have never heard of them or don’t give a rat’s tushie about some dead broads will inevitably find themselves intrigued. And perhaps the most touching moment comes at the very end when the stage is lit up with a montage of all their works, making Hellman and McCarthy even more relevant and undying.

    So if you’re still wondering whether to see it or not, by all means do, because it is a great play, although unbelievably strange at times. But it still manages to stay entertaining with a great amount of wit and humor throughout the entire three hours.

    “”Imaginary Friends”” is playing at the Globe Theatre in Balboa Park before it goes to Broadway. So check out while it’s here. The play is running from now through Nov. 3. Tickets range from $25 to $45 with discounts for students, seniors and active military. For information and show times call (619) 239-3355.

    Photos courtesy Globe Theatre

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