Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson. Directed by Philip C. Rice.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Matthew Daly as David O. Selznick; photo provided
"The shape of the ice does matter."
According to playwright Ron Hutchinson for five days in 1939 writer Ben Hecht was locked in David O. Selznick’s office with Selznick himself and movie director Victor Fleming. They had paper, pencils, an endless supply of bananas and peanuts and were hard at the task of rewriting the script for the movie "Gone With the Wind." It was the week after Selznick had fired director George Cukor. It was three weeks after Vivien Leigh had been hired to play Scarlet O’Hara. It was after scripts by Charles MacArthur, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a dozen other writers had been completed for that motion picture. This is the premise of one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen, now in a wonderful production at the Theatre Barn in New Lebanon, New York.
Four brilliantly funny performers are pulling off the best end-of-summer coup of this or any other season with a delicious, "laff-riot" experience that will have you heading out of the building weak from laughing, guffawing, knee-slapping reactions to the beautifully timed physical and verbal comedy of Matthew Daly, Aaron S. Holbritter, Richard Lounello and Melissa MacLeod Herion.
Under the slick and precise direction of Philip C. Rice these four actors are dragging us screaming with hilarity back to a time when social pressures mattered to a relative few while the importance of the big-screen entertainments mattered to the masses. The Great Depression was coming to an end and the great War ahead was still just that - ahead. It would be another two years before America became truly engaged in the world’s trauma. For now, in 1939, the obsession of most Americans was who would play Scarlett opposite the massive appeal of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Millions had read the book. More millions waited to see the film. Selznick’s problem was his devotion to the letter of the author’s words.
In this play he compels Ben Hecht to script an already much-scripted film. The only problem is that Hecht has not read the novel. To assist him in his five-day assignment to turn out a shooting script Selznick and a reluctant Victor Fleming act out the entire scenario for the writer while he turns their rendition into the bible that Fleming later filmed.
For Selznick everything is in the details: the shape of the ice, for example, or the color of a dress, a sky, a tree. He is compulsive in his slavishness to Margaret Mitchell’s work, although he has ignored her suggestion that Groucho Marx play Rhett. And he is devoted to the large movie-going audience, "the ones with all the power," as he calls them. Hecht is on a tear about politics and the war in Europe. Fleming is just glad to get away from one hundred and fifty fornicating "munchkins" populating his other hit movie of that year, "The Wizard of Oz."
Richard Lounello is a graphic and physically vital Fleming. A hunting, boozing, womanizing companion to Gable and others, he is a man for certain. Lounello plays him like a Mafia Don who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He brings a strength and a reality to the man that is never more well-defined than in the second act when, after nearly five days of non-stop work, he cannot do much, cannot stand, or even peel a banana. His physical comedy is never better than when he has to simultaneously play Melanie having her baby and Prissy returning without the doctor. In his debut with this company he has made himself a worthy addition.
Aaron S. Holbritter acquits himself masterfully as Ben Hecht. Big, bulky and bold he commands the stage when he stands up to the bully director and the brash producer. He provides a real sense of humanity in this otherwise egoistic assembly of Hollywood males. His Hecht is a fine figure, defending Jews and Judaism against the bigotry of self-denial Selznick exhibits. His skill with the typewriter seems genuine and his way with wacky comedy is unexpected.
As the beleaguered and compliant secretary Miss Poppenghul the company is fortunate in having Melissa MacLeod Herion. She handles physical and verbal comedy with equal ease. Her head is the show’s timepiece, gathering more and more pencils as adornment with each entrance. Her handling of a bag of peanuts (the ultimate moment in physical solo comedy) is nothing short of Lucille Ball-like. Her voice rings like a southern belle’s. Her eyes roll like the wheels of a flivver. Her hands flutter like those of Zasu Pitts and her ankles buckle like a comic illustration of young love in her first kiss. She is winning and a prize player in every one of her moments.
Selznick is portrayed by Matthew Daly, just coming off his stellar performance as Lawrence Jameson in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" at this theater. Unlike the character in that musical - a man who is estimable as a faker of roles - he plays an all-too-real comic figure as the movie producer whose life, future and reputation is at stake in this film venture. There is great humor in desperation, it seems, and Daly captures every aspect of that fear in his performance. He plays the producer’s deep belief in the book and film with strength and an uneven humanity. Daly also manages to create the unique atmosphere of tension and compassion that is so necessary for his character to have as he hoists his employees through the experience of creating a classic that neither of them believes in from the outset. The subtleties in this play are evinced in the playing of Daly. This is a triumph of a performance.
One of Abe Phelps’ best sets is trashed by the end of the play (although cleaned in record time by Miss Poppenghul in one of Herion’s funniest bits). Allen E. Phelps lights the play to enhance every moment. Kate R. Mincer’s costumes are exactly right for the period and the players.
Toward the end of the play the principals tussle over the final line of the script. You would think that "Tomorrow is another day" wouldn’t engender a lot of laughs, but if you aren’t too weak from laughing by the time they get to this classic overstatement, you will be when they finish hammering away at it. That may be the only thing to keep you going on the way home from the play.
Tomorrow is another day - and one you will cherish as you recover from so much fun.
Moonlight and Magnolias plays weekends only at The Theatre Barn, located at 654 Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-794-8989.