Review: ‘Moonlight and Magnolias' is full of slapstick and speculation


“Moonlight and Magnolias” features, from left, Doug Diekow as Victor Fleming, Adam Lishawa as Ben Hecht and Henry Wihnyk as David O. Selznick at the Gainesville Community Playhouse. (Courtesy of Ed Hunter)

Published: Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 at 3:23 p.m.

Groucho Marx as Rhett Butler. Now that's funny.

Facts

‘Moonlight and Magnolias'

What: Gainesville Community Playhouse production of comedy about writing the screenplay for the movie “Gone With the Wind”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through June 2
Where: Vam York Theater, 4039 NW 16th Blvd.
Tickets: $16, $10 for students with ID and children
Info: 376-4949, gcplayhouse.com

The Three Stooges, great bunches of bananas and 116 tipsy Munchkins. Funnier still.

In point of fact, Margaret Mitchell did want Marx rather than Clark Gable to play the roughish Rhett in the 1936 screen version of her hit novel “Gone With the Wind.”

You can't make stuff like that up.

But the rest of what unfolds in “Moonlight And Magnolias,” Ron Hutchinson's comedic spin on the backstory behind the near train wreck that was destined to become move magic, is the stuff of pure slapstick and speculation.

And frankly my dear, it is the stuff of such snappy humor and crisp dialogue that you will leave the Gainesville Community Playhouse not really giving a damn about whether it's true or not.

It is the Golden Age of Hollywood, and producer David O. Selznick has purchased the screen rights to Mitchell's monster best-seller. But now he's elbow-deep into production, and Selznick realizes that his script is a hulking, sodden mess. He's dodging phone calls from his boss and father-in-law, MGM mogul Louis B. Meyer, and the Hollywood rumor mill is abuzz with speculation that “Gone With the Wind” will be a cinematic white elephant for the ages.

Damage control time.

Selznick calls in Ben Hecht, ex-Chicago newshound turned screenwriter, to perform major script surgery. And he gives him just five days to do it.

“If there's somebody who knows how to stuff a sausage it's Ben Hecht,” muses Selznick, played with a fine mix of exasperation and bluster by Henry T. Wihnyk.

Just one problem.

Hecht, hasn't read the book. And what little he does know about it disgusts him.

“Does it have to be set in the Civil War?” asks Hecht, after scanning the first page and realizing that the plot is a thinly-veiled ode to the Confederacy, slavery, adultery and the Ku Klux Klan.

Hecht is nicely played by Adam Lishawa, who manages to convey both the former reporter's sense of righteous indignation and the Hollywood wordsmith's jaded indifference.

“I know a turkey when I see one,” he tells Selznick. “I'll take the fee.”

With no time to lose (and certainly no time to read) Selznick dragoons director Victor Fleming off the set of “The Wizard of Oz.” Locking themselves away for the duration, Selznick and Fleming proceed to act out the plot in ever more absurd ways while an incredulous Hecht pounds away on his typewriter.

Let's just say there will be reams of crumpled pages, layers of banana peels and peanut husks (brain food don't you know) and maybe even a little blood on the floor before this sausage gets stuffed.

Fleming is a study in self-absorbed cynicism. And as portrayed by Doug Diekow, you can readily imagine this lout — rumored to have smacked Judy Garland — blandly assuring a skeptical Hecht that there is, indeed, a tactful way to film Scarlett O'Hara slapping Prissy, her child slave.

Which setup leads to one of the funniest moments of the play, a veritable slap-fest in which punch-drunk Wihnyk, Lishawa and Diekow abruptly go all Larry, Moe and Curly Joe on each other.

Some of the best scenes turn on the hate-hate relationship between Hecht and Fleming; the one struggling to hold on to the last shreds of his idealism, the other openly contemptuous of idealists.

“I'm here to butcher the book,” sneers Hecht. “I think we can trust you to butcher the script.”

“The worst thing that ever happened to the business was talking pictures,” retorts Fleming. “Now we need words.”

Invariably it falls to Wihnyk's Selznick to deflate both of these overblown egos with a cold dose of Hollywood reality.

“You want to talk about creativity,” he tells them. “Take a look at the studio's books. That's real imagination.”

Also noteworthy in this small but energetic cast is Jennie Stringfellow, as Selznick's much put-upon secretary,” Miss Poppinghul. “Yes, Mr,. Selznick. No, Mr. Sleznick. Thank you Mr. Selznick,” she rattles off in work-weary rote.

The chemistry between these actors is generally spot on, even if their sense of timing is sometimes a step behind the script's fast pace. “Moonlight and Magnolias” does bog down a bit in the second act — as the laughs give way to occasionally contrived dialogue about Jews in Hollywood and the parallels between slavery in the old South and the rising tide of fascism in Europe. But every tale worth telling has a moral. All in all, “Moonlight and Magnolias” makes for an entertaining evening.

And listen, Groucho Marx might not have made a convincing Rhett Butler, but he would have fit right in with this crew.

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