Moonlight and Magnolias, by Ron Hutchinson. Directed by Eric Peterson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Wham! The slap stays in the movie."
Funny play about a not-so-funny movie. It's 1939. It's David O. Selznick's office. The producer has ordered production shut down on his big film, "Gone With the Wind," after only three weeks of shooting. He has fired George Cukor as director and he intends to replace him with Victor Fleming, pulling this director off of "The Wizard of Oz," which is near completion. He has only one more problelm to solve: the script that just doesn't work; solution: hire writer Ben Hecht to write an entirely new script in the next five days. New Problem: Hecht has never read the novel. New solution: teach him the book as he writes.
Locked in, deprived of sleep, devouring peanuts and bananas, the three men wrestle the new script out of their imaginations. At least that is what playwright Ron Hutchinson gives us in his very funny comedy, "Moonlight and Magnolias," now playing on the stage at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont. Director Eric Peterson, who has always been adept at knock-em-down comedy, delivers Hutchinson's play with uneasy finesse. This is a funny presentation even when it becomes dangerous and openly psychotic. Peterson pulls his actors into an arena where the physical comedy outweighs the verbal and the results are edgey and electric.
Ben Hecht is played by Paul Romero who handles this treacherous territory like an explorer with only one good eye. He moves without subtlety into Peterson's vision of the play and by the second half of the second act he is clearly approaching madness. Hecht turns his relationship with Selznick into a racial tract that is maniacal and maddening and Romero plays this with an almost manic intent that loses its humor temporarily, turning Hecht into a man with a mean streak that needs to be expressed. It's a fascinating sequence in a play that seems always poised to become a tragedy rather than a comedy.
Nathan Stith plays director Victor Fleming as an egotist whose ego cannot be satisfied and he makes this aspect of the Hollywood personality ring true without ever becoming nonsensical. Both the actor and his character are strong men, dominating figures, and Stith keeps the need to succeed ever present. Even when he plays Prissy he is dominant, which that character in the movie never can be, and so his rendition of Butterfly McQueen's performance is hilarious.
As Selznick's secretary Miss Poppenghul, Natalie Wilder finds her strengths in a simulation of Alice Pearce, a character actress whose nasal twang and less-than-subtle personality made her into a star of a different sort. Wilder is often a comic relief in this comedy where passions play out on a regular basis. She especially impressed with her physical representation of days four and five. She does a lovely job in this play.
It is Selznick who holds center stage in this play and Eli Ganias does him proud. No matter who does what in this work, it is always Selznick who everyone else focuses on. His concept of Scarlett O'Hara is choice. His attitudes are challenging. Ganias makes the producer into a demi-god who has yet to conquer the world he rules. He is not only the central figure, he is the glue that holds the others erect and makes them important, and Ganias manages to pull this off with humor and fine timing. I really enjoyed his performance.
Richard Howe's Art Deco set seems right for this play and Ursula McCarty's costumes are simple and straightforward, right down to the hilarious suspenders. If, like me, you consider "Gone With the Wind" to be the most bloated and over-rated movie ever made you will find the author's contention that Selznick is making the only important film in history up to that time to be the funniest point in the play. If you love the movie, the play should be enjoyable for its own relevant story. Either way, this is a funny play given a funny performance with that edge of madness. It's a mighty moment in this summer's entertainment.
Moonlight and Magnolias plays at Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main Street, Bennington, VT through July 9. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line at oldcastletheatre.org.