Review: ‘Moonlight & Magnolias’

While it's not quite up there with singing along to "The Sound of Music" or Time Warping to "The Rocky Horror Show," mentally assembling the classic dialogue of "Gone With the Wind" along with its creators provides much of the enjoyment in the old-Hollywood farce "Moonlight & Magnolias." Played fast and broad in Manhattan Theater Club's handsomely upholstered production, Ron Hutchinson's flimsy comedy is a fictionalized account of the imprisonment in producer David O. Selznick's office for five days of writer Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming to thrash out a new screenplay during a production shutdown on the Civil War epic.

While it’s not quite up there with singing along to “The Sound of Music” or Time Warping to “The Rocky Horror Show,” mentally assembling the classic dialogue of “Gone With the Wind” along with its creators provides much of the enjoyment in the old-Hollywood farce “Moonlight & Magnolias.” Played fast and broad in Manhattan Theater Club’s handsomely upholstered production, Ron Hutchinson’s flimsy comedy is a fictionalized account of the imprisonment in producer David O. Selznick’s office for five days of writer Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming to thrash out a new screenplay during a production shutdown on the Civil War epic.

Mining a popular culture landmark for its nostalgia value, “M&M” is at its best when the three film industry giants — in rascally impersonations by Douglas Sills (Selznick), Matthew Arkin (Hecht) and David Rasche (Fleming) — are mugging their way around Scarlett, Rhett and even Prissy’s greatest hits.

But the fragility of the enterprise becomes apparent when the play halfheartedly reveals its more serious intention of showing Selznick as a marginalized Jew who craves legitimacy in the eyes of the non-ethnic, Beverly Hills country club establishment — an agenda heavy-handedly exposed via Zionist Hecht.

Still, despite its superficial exploration of anti-Semitism in 1939 Hollywood, the play is not without its pleasures. Directed with vigor and comedic largesse by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow, the action unfolds briskly on Santo Loquasto’s stylish set, a swanky, detailed facsimile of Selznick’s office on the lot, its honey-toned cherry-wood furniture and elegant upscale-chintz decor coated in warm tones by Rui Rita’s lighting.

Partly based on Hecht’s memoir “A Child of the Century” and clearly tinged by Hutchinson’s experience as a Hollywood rewrite specialist, “Moonlight” opens as a feverishly pressured Selznick has halted production on “GWTW.”

Assisted by his efficient but harried secretary, Miss Poppenghul (Margo Skinner), the producer attempts to keep the wolves on the phone at bay, among them Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, Ed Sullivan, Vivien Leigh and, most fearsome of all, Selznick’s overbearing father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, all of whom smell disaster.

Having fired his friend George Cukor from the movie (apparently after an awkward men’s room incident with homophobic Clark Gable), Selznick yanks Fleming off the set of “The Wizard of Oz” to take over. The volatile director (he slapped Judy Garland — “Once!” he keeps repeating) is only too happy to be rid of drunken, fornicating Munchkins.

But Hecht, who has refused to read Margaret Mitchell’s bestseller (“Yeech,” he cringes), proves harder to persuade to rewrite Sidney Howard’s script. Nevertheless, Selznick extracts a commitment for five days’ work from the writer. Taking him at his word, the producer locks both men in his office, supplying only bananas and peanuts as brain food.

Consumers of vintage Hollywood insider stories will eat up Hutchinson’s diverting conjecture as to what actually happened behind those closed doors, a scenario given extra spark by the fractious interplay among the three men and their wildly contrasting demeanors.

Anxious to prove his naysayers wrong and to redeem himself for the failure in Hollywood of his father, Selznick is a bristling neurotic, wired up and ready to pop.

Hecht, a mercurial Chicago newspaperman-turned-scriptwriter, looks upon the matter as folly (“No Civil War movie ever made a dime”) and, in fact, declined screenwriting credit for fear of a taint to his career. The scribe’s wry dismissal of the project only increases as his weariness, typing cramps and back pain set in during the sleepless five-day marathon.

A former Hollywood driver, Fleming is a more rugged guy with little time for niceties. The friction between Fleming and Hecht, in particular, fuels the comedy, but each man has an inflated opinion of his role in the creative process and a begrudging view of the others’ contributions.

Ultimately, however, it’s the hell-bent determination and entrepreneurial insanity of the independent producer to which Hutchinson pays tribute.

On a set increasingly littered with balled-up discarded script pages, Meadow steadily nudges the action in a more manic direction as fatigue and sleep deprivation grip the three men. This reaches an amusing crescendo as they argue the finer points of the scene in which Melanie Hamilton writhes through prolonged labor while Scarlett slaps stupid Prissy for failing to rustle up a doctor. (Rasche has fun hamming it up as both Prissy and Melanie while Sills portrays a petulant Scarlett, relishing every “fiddle-dee-dee.”)

Hecht’s concern about being part of a project that eulogizes the old South and the reluctance of its people to give up a way of life that encompasses slavery provides much of the underdeveloped conflict. This aspect is sold short by the playwright and by a lack of sincerity in Arkin’s characterization.

By favoring the uncentered play’s wilder comic aspects, Meadow points up the shallowness in Hutchinson’s writing, which becomes somewhat irksome considering Hecht’s widely documented history as a passionate advocate for Jewish causes. The play all but grinds to a halt when Hecht directly confronts Selznick with the limited respect he commands as a Jew in Hollywood.

Sills plays Selznick with a certain engaging zaniness that recalls Steve Martin, grounded just barely by a glimpse into the man’s desperation to make his mark, while Rasche drolly skirts the understated side of a blunt Victor Mature-style masculinity.

Underlining the production’s affinity for the scatty sophistication of hoary Hollywood comedies, Skinner appears to be channeling Peggy Cass as the dutiful but bewildered Agnes Gooch in “Auntie Mame.”

Moonlight & Magnolias

City Center Stage I; 299 seats; $60 top

Production

A Manhattan Theater Club, New York City Center Stage I presentation of a play in two acts by Ron Hutchinson. Directed by Lynne Meadow.

Creative

Set, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Rui Rita; sound, Obadiah Eaves; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Diane DiVita. Opened March 29, 2005. Reviewed March 23. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast

Ben Hecht - Matthew Arkin Victor Fleming - David Rasche David O. Selznick - Douglas Sills Miss Poppenghul - Margo Skinner
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