Moonlight and Magnolias at New Milford’s TheatreWorks

David Begelman

Maybe Ron Hutchinson imagines that his play Moonlight and Magnolias gives us some idea of what production team brainstorming in Hollywood is all about. I doubt it. We all suspect that behind the scenes jockeying for position among producers, directors, and screenwriters on a project is a tinsel town reality. But Mr. Hutchinson’s high jinks surrounding the creation of Gone With The Wind is something else entirely. He has producer David O. Selznick (played energetically by Thomas Libonate), screenwriter Ben Hecht (played by Glenn R. Coutoure in a constant state of frustration banging away at a Royal typewriter), and director Victor Fleming (played by Jonathan Ross, an adept at imitating “the immortal helium squeak of Butterfly McQueen”) have at each other as if the only way these three could manage a collaboration is by way of a knock-down slug fest. His play is not only silly, it makes a Georges Feydeau farce look like a dour Strindberg drama.

On opening night of Moonlight and Magnolias at New Milford’s TheaterWorks, an audience member was overheard remarking that the playwright’s vision must have been inspired by Marx Brothers routines. A more likely comparison would be the Ritz Brothers: a trio of comics whose humor was a notch above Three Stooges routines. You can catch their sorry humor in another 1939 flick, The Three Musketeers, with Don Ameche as a singing D’Artagnan.

One problem among many of Mr. Hutchinson’s play is that its three central characters were real people, who, despite their creative travails, could not have comported themselves as witlessly as the playwright depicts in Moonlight and Magnolias. So right from the start the antics we see on stage jar any sense of a reality we have a right to harbor about what went on behind closed doors at David O. Selznick’s studio office.

The playwright has his three characters in a virtual donnybrook. This includes face slapping, screaming, peanut-pelting, door slamming, floor crawling, and a hyperkinetic climate that doesn’t come up for air. Selznick’s put-upon secretary, Miss Poppenghul (played fretfully by Missy Slaymaker-Hanlon) seems so shaken by the ordeal of servicing the squabbling threesome with peanuts and bananas throughout the duration of their creative lock-down, she shows rapid signs of deterioration. The action reaches such a pitch, the playwright has Selznick at one point experience a dissociative spell, becoming frozen and unable to move or speak for a time. At the opening of the second act, Scott Wyshynski’s handsomely appointed stage set is so completely littered with discarded stationery that is the detritus of futile attempts to draft a satisfactory screenplay, we are reminded of Bette Davis’s immortal line, “What a dump!” All these shenanigans are supposedly in the service of a project the three characters have very different spins on initiating. Well, Hollywood production teams may have their personality problems, but they can’t be as squirrelly as all this.

Another problem is that Mr. Hutchinson would have us believe that the fate of a cinematic project of such gargantuan proportions as GWTW hinges on a turn of phrase or contrived expression. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Rhett Butler’s farewell to Scarlett O’Hara, is, according to the playwright, supposedly an epiphany of Selznick’s that has more of a proper “handle” than a comment which is an anemic measure of Rhett’s disdain. In another section of the play, Selznick muses that calling the super ape “King Kong” rather than “Kong” made for a different kind of movie experience. Monkeyshines, I say.

In the second act of the play, its characters discuss the excluded plight of Jews in Hollywood, making the dialogue strike a note that comes perilously close to broaching serious social issues quite out of keeping with an atmosphere of uncompromising levity.

Some consider the blockbuster GWTW the greatest American film ever made, although others of us believe that for all its hoopla, it doesn’t hold a candle to Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz, a film also produced in the same fecund Hollywood year of 1939, and with the same director, Victor Fleming. David O. Selznick’s memo of October, 1939, mentions Ben Hecht’s involvement with GWTW, as does an entry among the 68 uncredited contributions in his filmography. But the screenplay adaptation of the Margaret Mitchell novel was authored chiefly by Sidney Howard, not Ben Hecht, who was called in only for a partial rewrite..

The cast of Moonlight and Magnolias makes a valiant effort to spice up the playwright’s flawed comedy. Director Sonnie Osborne was between a rock and a hard place when it came to adjusting the proper tempo of the play. It could either be directed at a more leisurely pace, with an emphasis on understated emotion, or taken at a frenetic one. Either way, it would be difficult to avoid coming up the worse for wear, given the quality of the Hutchinson script. The down side of fast-pacing this show is the risk of lapsing into an overly farcical style bulging with an abundance of mugging and indicating (i.e., representing emotion, rather than having it emerge as a by-product of authentic engagement). Ms. Osborne chose the fast track, with the result that much of the humor seemed contrived to milk the most out of one-liners. Many of them are cheap shots, slung at the audience while actors hurtle about the stage as if in a whirlwind.

Moonlight and Magnolias opened on April 18 at New Milford’s TheatreWorks, and runs on consecutive Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 PM, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM until May 10. Tickets for all shows are $20 for reserved seating. Reservations can be made on line at WWW.THEATREWORKS.US or by calling the box office at (860)-350-6863.

This review originally appeared in The Citizen News, New Fairfield, on April 24, 2008.

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