29 January 2013

The Scarlett Rewrite: A review of "Moonlight and Magnolias"


There's an old joke that asks, "How do you know that an actress isn't very bright?  She's the one who is sleeping with the writer."

This lack of respect for the writer in old time Hollywood is at the very heart of the latest production at Playhouse on Park, Moonlight and Magnolias, written by Ron Hutchinson, and running through February 10th. 

The play offers an imaginative recreation of the complete revision of the Gone with the Wind script that producer David O. Selznick (played by Kevin Elden) commissioned from Ben Hecht (Allen Greenberg) three weeks into shooting.  Having to be completed in a week (lest he become the failure many think his father had been), Selznick all but imprisons Hecht and newly assigned director Victor Fleming (Bill Mootos), who has been hijacked from his duties on The Wizard of Oz, to translate to the screen the massive commercial success of Margaret Mitchell's novel.

The script doctor, who neither has read the book (thanks to his love of literature) nor carries any sympathetic feelings for the mores of the Old South (thanks to his Jewish heritage), is repeatedly shocked by what he's being asked to do by someone he thought to be a kindred spirit.  In the course of the week, all three learn something about the debt collaborators owe each other and the compromises inherent in the popular art of movie-making.

The play moves briskly as it traces Selznick and Fleming's pantomime of seemingly the entire movie  and swings back and forth from slapstick to insightful awareness of the intransigent hold of cultural prejudices.  As directed by Russell Garrett, the play is at its best in those moments when Greenberg's Hecht makes us all stop and re-think (even while laughing) the classic film we've always loved.  Several of the more physical bits (Selznick's "paralysis" and the homage to the Three Stooges' slapping) don't quite work, but the energy that the actors invest -- especially in the intimate space of POP -- cannot but be appreciated by the audience.  And, while I understand that the audience only meets Selznick after the pressure on him has been increasing exponentially since filming began and that there's already an air of desperation about him, I do wish that Elden's producer was able to begin a little less frantically and to build into the frenzy in which the three find themselves as the week progresses.

A note of praise has to be offered to Erik D. Diaz for his fabulous scenic design.  POP always takes full advantage of its space, but his take on Selznick's office is simply beautiful.  I'd put it right up there with the sets for POP's productions of Ovid's Metamorphoses and Around the World in 80 Days.

So, if you love classic Hollywood, Gone with the Wind, social commentary, slapstick, or even simply have warm feelings for writers (and their plight), you will enjoy Moonlight and Magnolias.  It may not be perfect, but at the end of an entertaining evening, you simply won't give a damn.

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