Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Famous feud fuels musical

Storytellers' snipes inspire Ephron to write first play

By Tim Molloy
The Associated Press

Nora Ephron's new Broadway play is about the enduring conflict created when a writer bitingly responded to a question about who she thought was overrated.

Imaginary Friends is built around author Mary McCarthy's significantly more incendiary response to a question asked by television talk-show host Dick Cavett more than 20 years ago. She immediately named fellow writer Lillian Hellman.

"Everything she writes is a lie," McCarthy said, `including `and' `and' `the.' "

Hellman went on to sue McCarthy, Mr. Cavett and the station that aired the interview. The lawsuit followed decades of sniping that Ms. Ephron presents as a conflict between two rival approaches to storytelling.

"You have these two women, one of whom turns truth into a pathology, and the other is absolutely, unquestionably a psychopathic liar," says Ms. Ephron.

Hellman, in Ms. Ephron's estimation, loaded supposedly nonfiction books like Pentimento with self-aggrandizing stories that had little, if any, basis in fact.

McCarthy, the supposed fiction writer, was threatened with lawsuits almost as a matter of routine by people who accused her of doing next to nothing to disguise real-life details of their lives in her stories.

Moment of epiphany

"Character is destiny," Ms. Ephron says. "The thing about each of them that was probably the strongest and most powerful and maybe even most attractive thing about them was each of their undoing. And that moment when they collide is a moment when on some level they're at their most quintessentially whoever they are, and at their worst."

Ms. Ephron talks about the play while picking through a salad at a Manhattan restaurant, that could pass for the deli in the famous scene she's scripted, the one in When Harry Met Sally. . . in which Meg Ryan demonstrates a talent she says all women share.

Ms. Ephron, also known for scripting Silkwood and writing and directing Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, has Broadway in her blood. Her parents were the stage and screenwriting team Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who used her letters from college as the basis of the comedy Take Her, She's Mine, which later became a film.

Multiple versions

Ms. Ephron said she decided to write her first play because there was no other way to tell Hellman and McCarthy's story. The format allows the cast to present several possible versions of the feud's low points.

"One of the things that's so fascinating to me about them is that every time I would ever talk to anyone who knew both women or who knew the story of it, they would explain it to me in a completely different way," Ms. Ephron says.

The Hellman and McCarthy characters meet in a sort of limbo Ms. Ephron describes as "a ladies room in hell," and hash over the events that made them hate each other. At one point Hellman (Swoosie Kurtz) and McCarthy (Cherry Jones) direct each other and the supporting cast in different versions of an encounter at Sarah Lawrence College that was the likely source of the women's mutual antipathy. Hellman tells students to look at her more adoringly, and McCarthy to shake her teacup more.

Telling the story as a play also allowed Ms. Ephron to indulge her love of music, which composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Craig Carnelia signed on to write. While nothing in the plot demanded music - it's about writers, not singers - Ms. Ephron thought music would give the audience some nice breaks between dialogue.

At one point two characters named "Fact" and "Fiction" do a tap dance in which they celebrate their respective styles of storytelling.

So does Ms. Ephron come down on the side of fact or fiction? McCarthy or Hellman?

"Each version is entirely plausible from the point of view of the person telling it," she says. "That's what is so delicious about stories.

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