By Ruth Ross
With a clever script, talented actors and great timing, a well-crafted comedy is a glorious thing to behold. And this is evident onstage at the Burgdorff Performing Arts Center in Maplewood where The Theater Project is in the middle of its run of Ron Hutchinson's Moonlight and Magnolias. There, the sharp-elbowed jibes at Hollywood and the glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes to get a blockbuster movie on the screen will delight theater lovers and film buffs alike.
The play's title refers to the setting for Margaret Mitchell's sprawling, melodramatic, very un-PC blockbuster novel, Gone With the Wind. In 1939, just several weeks into filming his cinematic version, producer David O. Selznick has fired both screenwriter and director and replaced them with Chicago journalist-turned-script-writer Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming and has given them one week to come up with material he can put onscreen. One problem: Despite the novel's having sold an amazing 1.2 million copies in 12 months, Hecht has neither read the book, nor does he even know what it is about. To remedy this deficiency, Selznick and Fleming act out the plot, hilariously, while Hecht writes.
But the road to success is never smooth. The rivalry between Hecht and Fleming is intense, with each throwing barbed insults at the other, sometimes coming to blows. And Hecht's moral compass is outraged at the idea of glorifying slavery and the Confederacy and presenting it to the masses as something to admire. Seeing only the bottom (financial) line, Selznick is not above imprisoning the duo with him in his office for the script to be written—from scratch—feeding them only bananas and peanuts brought in by his efficient secretary, Miss Poppenguhl.
You don’t have to be familiar with the film—or even to have seen it—but it sure makes the funny even funnier. Just listening to Selznick hum the opening bars of the Gone With the Wind theme will set you giggling, even though the music was probably composed long after the script was completed. Hutchinson's crackling dialogue, delivered on a beautiful set decorated with Art Deco style, and physical antics directed with energy and élan by Mark Spina turn what must have been a serious endeavor into a comedic romp that feels a lot like farce.
The cast is more than up to the task. Wiry Gary Glor's Selznick (right) is a nervous, driven man who, despite numerous hit films, still feels he must prove to his powerful father-in-law Louis B. Mayer (head of MGM Pictures) that he has the chops to produce a blockbuster movie. That Mayer has bankrolled 50% of the production costs—dough he expects to recover—is forever on the young movie mogul’s mind (along with the success of his producing rival Irving Thalberg). Despite the fact that, according to Hecht, "no Civil War movie ever made a dime,” he’s determined to forge ahead.
His true adversary is not Mayer, but Ben Hecht, the project’s social conscience, played by Michael Irvin Pollard (far left) in his debut with the company. As the one who tries to inject some sense of social justice into a “plot that makes Finnegan’s Wake [seem like] a model of lucidity,” Pollard gets to utter some terrific lines, which he delivers with a combination of logic, wit and spot-on comedic timing. As Hecht, Pollard tries to appeal to Selznick’s Jewish sense of justice, arguing that because the book focuses on race and slavery, it is “an elegy for the South,” but he loses the battle to when Selznick grandly intones, “In the beginning was the deal,” reminding him that all he has to do is write a script and that Selznick, as producer, will get the film on the screen.
Rounding out the creative trio as director Victor Fleming is Rick Delaney (above, right), who is especially delicious acting out the scene where Melanie Wilkes gives birth; he plays both Melanie and Prissy, her maid, with great comedic flair. His verbal duels with Hecht are deliciously bitchy, especially when Hecht makes car noises to remind Fleming of his "roots" in the film industry as a lowly chauffeur. Deborah Mclean is fine as Miss Poppenghul, Selznick’s secretary. Although most of her lines consist of “Yes, Mr. Selznick” and “No, Mr. Selznick,” her nasal delivery is delightfully amusing, and watching her demeanor change over the course of the week is amusing.
Daaimah Talley's costumes are appropriate to the period (and to the importance these men attach to themselves), and Michael Magnifico's collection of properties enhance the set. Greg Scalera's sound designs lend atmosphere and Zach Gage's lighting denotes very well the passage of time.
The sniping between Fleming and Hecht (and the way Selznick cringes at the very mention of his rival Irving Thalberg) are delightful reminders of the beginnings of this great art form, created by a group of Eastern European Jewish immigrants not long in America, men who fashioned what we consider to be the essence of the American Dream and projected it on screens all over America, teaching everyone what it means to be an “American.” Thomas Edison may have “invented” movies, but these guys made them commercial and profitable.
To Selznick, Hecht and Fleming, “movies are the biggest gamble in town,” but luckily for us, they took the risk, leading to the thriving industry we have today. Playwright Ron Hutchinson and The Theater Project have given us a deliciously wicked glimpse into how GWTW (as it’s fondly recalled) came to be one of the most successful and beloved films of all time, despite Hecht's very real misgivings. Howard Kissel of the NY Daily News said of Moonlight and Magnolias, “Frankly, my dear, this is one funny play.” If you are a film buff or just love good theater (especially comedy), this is one play you won’t want to miss.
Moonlight and Magnolias will be performed at the Burgdorff Performing Arts Center, 10 Durand Road in Maplewood, through April 12 for just one more weekend. For information and tickets, call the box office at 9083809.8865 or visit www.TheTheaterProject.org online.