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A CurtainUp Review
Moonlight and Magnolias

It's only in the movies where the dead can walk. You have any other way to live forever
--- Producer David O. Selznick's explanation of why "the whole world wants to work in the movies " even though it's a tough and tense way to make a living.
Douglas Sills as David O. Selznick
Douglas Sills as David O. Selznick
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In his Moonlight and Magnolias, Ron Hutchinson validates the above quote he attributes to the Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick. The three-hour epic's phenomenal success etched the movie's most memorable scenes into our collective memories so that noone is likely to have trouble following the farcical acting out of key scenes by producer Selznick (musical swashbuckler Douglas Sills, making a good case for more straight acting opportunities) and director Victor Fleming (David Rasche) for Ben Hecht (Matthew Arkin) the social activist, playwright and screen writer drafted to provide a script that would rescue the stalled production.

Though both Hecht and Fleming were convinced they were were wasting their time, and Selznick his money, Gone With the Wind did indeed immortalize Vivien Leigh's Scarlett, Clark Gable's Rhett, Leslie Howard's Ashley, Olivia De Haviland's Melanie, Hattie McDaniel's Mammy and Butterfly McQueen's Prissy. Playwright Hutchinson's attempt to pay tribute to the man with the tenacity and willingness to risk everything to shepherd it from paper to celluloid is quite another story.

Moonlight and Magnolias (the original GWTW working title) begins well enough with a fun pre-show movie trailer showing bits and pieces from screen tests by contenders for the Scarlett part who included, among others, Jean Arthur, Paulette Goddard, Virginia Gray and Susan Hayward. However, the show itself is likely to be gone with the wind from your memory by the time you get home from Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I at City Center. Thanks to the cast's zestful embrace of the farcical spirit that dominates the enterprise, Santo Loquasto's as always attractive and apt scenic design and Hutchinson's well-researched and often funny dialogue, it's an entertaining and chuckle-filled divertissement. But coming to this theater on the heels of the world premiere of the truly substantive, first-rate Doubt (Review) and in the same season offering us another and better backstage story, Orson's Shadow (review), this basically plotless slice of re-imagined film history is disappointingly thin fare.

The situation -- and that rather than a solidly constructed plot is what we have here-- is based on a fact-based event. The troubled GWTW production was halted, its director (George Cukor) replaced by Fleming and Hecht was called in to doctor the script. The scenario cooked up from these facts is that Selznick not only locks his new director and script writer into his office for a five day rescue mission, but insists that they eat nothing but brain nourishing bananas and peanuts.

The running joke about both Hecht and Fleming's conviction that the movie is doomed to be a flop is given extra chuckle wattage by Hecht's not having read the book so that Goldwyn and Fleming act it out for him as he pounds away at an old Underwood typewriter. This makes for a fairly predictable pre-computer visual joke in which the elegant office becomes a tsunami of discarded paper and banana peels.

The trio's efforts to get the movie back on track begins to look more and more like a scene from a Three Stooges or Marx Brothers movie, with the actors becoming as disheveled as their surroundings -- which also goes for the efficient Miss Poppenghul (a character who despite being drolly played by Margo Skinner, adds yet another stock element to the proceedings). But Hutchinson, probably realizing that slapstick can take an anecdotal event like this just so far, has opted to bolster it with a more serious subtext. A valiant but failed effort. Comedy can relieve the tension of a serious drama and comedies often accommodates sad underpinnings, there's an oil and water effect when this out and out slapstick reveals its more serious intentions.

Perhaps Mr. Hutchinson and Ms. Meadows should have locked themselves into a room with a supply of bananas and peanuts to come up with a better way to mix the slapstick with Selznick's personal psychodrama and Hecht's polemic about the clear and present danger of another war. As it is, you can't help feeling as if you're zapping from channel to channel, watching two different plays -- and frankly, my dear, not giving a damn about either.


Written by Ron Hutchinson
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Cast: Matthew Arkin (Ben Hecht), David Rasche (Victor Fleming), Douglas Sills (David O. Selznick) and Margo Skinner (Miss Poppenghul).
Set Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Rui Rita
Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Running time: 1 Hr. 45 min intermission.
Manhattan Theatre Club, NYCCenter-Stage I, 131 West 55th Street 212/ 581-1212

From 3/03/05 to 5/08/05; opening 3/29/05.
Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM, and Sunday evening performances at 7:00 PM.
Tickets are $60.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 2nd matinee

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