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Moonlight and Magnolias

Once an Irish playwright with a taste for intense political drama, Ron Hutchinson now is one of Hollywood's busier rewrite guys. His affectionate and very funny new farce about the closed-door travails behind the frantic penning of the screenplay to "Gone With the Wind" has one big, bankable asset: an unmistakable sense of authenticity.

Cast:
David O. Selznick - Ron Orbach Ben Hecht - William Dick Victor Fleming - Rob Riley Miss Poppenghul - Mary Seibel

Once an Irish playwright with a taste for intense political drama such as “Rat in the Skull,” Ron Hutchinson now is one of Hollywood’s busier rewrite guys. His affectionate and very funny new farce about the closed-door travails behind the frantic penning of the screenplay to “Gone With the Wind” has one big, bankable asset: an unmistakable sense of authenticity.

The main problem with this three-handed show — at its first Goodman Theater outing, at least — is that it cannot quite decide whether to be a rollicking Hollywood farce built around the clash of titanic egos, or a sweet, affectionate tribute to indie-minded movie impresarios like David O. Selznick, whose personal neuroses didn’t prevent a commitment to quality moviemaking. As if those conflicting aims were not enough, Hutchinson also introduces a major serious theme late in the day — when Ben Hecht convinces Selznick that all the money and power in the world won’t buy a Jewish guy respect in the America of 1939.

That’s a lot for a single-set play like this to hold, and at times Steven Robman’s premiere production loses its stylistic balance. But those inconsistencies could be easily fixed. And they don’t stop the script’s numerous laughs from flowing freely. There’s a delicious preponderance of juicy insider gags that should allow this show to snag mucho guffaws in L.A. or New York.

When Selznick called in the Chicago newspaperman Hecht to take a crack at Margaret Mitchell’s great American melodrama, the legendary producer had already shot his wad filming the burning of Atlanta, ignoring the inconvenient lack of a screenplay.

With director George Cukor ousted by the homophobic Clark Gable, Selznick locked himself in a room with the Munchkin-hating director Victor Fleming, fresh off “The Wizard of Oz,” and Hecht — who hadn’t even read the damn novel. Over the course of a week, the ugly trio banged out a screenplay. Hutchinson’s play imagines what went on in that room.

Most of the fun comes from sticking three showbiz eccentrics in this confined space and letting them howl. Fighting off a reputation for slapping Judy Garland (“Once,” he keeps repeating), Fleming acts out his ideas with the help of Selznick, while Hecht gets it all down on paper. Selznick’s dotty assistant Miss Poppenghul wanders through from time to time.

There’s a stellar central performance from Ron Orbach as Selznick, played as a kind of cuddlier version of Harvey Weinstein. And as Fleming, whose brilliance was born of insecurity, Chi thesp Rob Riley is appropriately vapid and strange. William Dick isn’t immediately identifiable as the pugnacious bruiser that was Hecht in Hollywood, but he’s funny enough to sustain the show.

All the vaunted “Gone With the Wind” iconography is present and correct: The guys argue over the slap, the stupid last line, the desirability of “damn.” Selznick fends off calls from Vivian Leigh, who wants to go home (“Tell Mr. Olivier to keep it in his pants,” the producer barks back), his father-in-law Louis B. Mayer, who wants to gloat, and his demons. Hutchinson has a lot of fun with them all.

Moonlight and Magnolias

Goodman Theater, Chicago; 365 seats; $35 top

Production: A Goodman Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Ron Hutchinson. Directed by Steven Robman.

Creative: Sets and lighting, Michael Philippi; costumes, Brigit Rattenborg Wise; sound, Richard Woodbury; production stage manager, Kimberly Osgood. Artistic director, Robert Falls. Opened May 25, 2004; reviewed May 31. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast: David O. Selznick - Ron Orbach Ben Hecht - William Dick Victor Fleming - Rob Riley Miss Poppenghul - Mary Seibel

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