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Moonlight and Magnolias

"No Civil War movie ever made a dime," says writer Ben Hecht (David Manis), in response to the compulsive, near-psychotic desire of David O. Selznick (Dan Castellaneta) to produce "Gone With the Wind." In Ron Hutchinson's consistently funny, sharply observed expose of Hollywood egos, Selznick holds Hecht and director Victor Fleming (Tom McGowan) creative captives in his office for five days.

David O'Selznick - Dan Castellaneta Miss Poppenghul - Meagen Fay Ben Hecht - David Manis Victor Fleming - Tom McGowan

“No Civil War movie ever made a dime,” says writer Ben Hecht (David Manis), in response to the compulsive, near-psychotic desire of David O. Selznick (Dan Castellaneta) to produce “Gone With the Wind.” In Ron Hutchinson’s consistently funny, sharply observed expose of Hollywood egos, Selznick holds Hecht and director Victor Fleming (Tom McGowan) creative captives in his office for five days. During that time, he shuts down “GWTW” production and uses an endless arsenal of guilt, anger and intimidation to make them rewrite and rescue the picture’s ailing script.

First presented at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, then at the Manhattan Theater Club, this slashing satire, suggested by Hecht’s memoir “A Child of the Century,” has its condensed, fanciful elements (some say as many as 17 writers worked on the “GWTW” script), but it sustains an authentic Hollywood flavor. Director John Rando maintains a masterful control of farce, wit and slapstick, letting all three genres overlap without losing either humor or truth.

Selznick’s obsessiveness is immediately shown when he yanks Fleming from his helming troubles on “The Wizard of Oz.” The director is relieved to be pulled from a production where he slapped Judy Garland (“once“) and dealt with “160 Munchkins dead drunk and fornicating.” But his “GWTW” trials become equally difficult after he finds himself sparring competitively with Hecht and coping with a broken blood vessel in his left eye while under pressure by Selznick to come up with ideas.

McGowan marvelously manages the feat of balancing expansive clowning with a mixture of insecurity and pride that Fleming takes in such pictures as “Test Pilot.” He also brings reality to the comment about a movie that takes nine months from script to premiere, “Given one little compromise a day, that’s 270 compromises. Say your movie lasts 90 minutes … that’s one compromise every 20 seconds.”

Manis is a brilliant Hecht, the “Shakespeare of Hollywood,” spouting artistic principles while selling out for massive Hollywood money. He tells Selznick — producer of “David Copperfield” and “The Prisoner of Zenda” — that “there isn’t one classic you haven’t pillaged.”

And his horror at Margaret Mitchell’s work, which he considers second-rate, bodice-ripping soap opera, is a continuously entertaining pulse of the production.

Momentum never dissipates, although the story steers off course when handling Hecht’s feeling about Hollywood prejudice toward Jews. For a short while, it seems as though an entirely new Clifford Odets-type vehicle has emerged, and it’s to Manis’ credit that his urgency maintains spectator involvement until the main “GWTW” elements return. This portion of “Moonlight and Magnolias” rates a separate, more fully fleshed play of its own.

Castellaneta (voice of Homer, among many others, on “The Simpsons”) is a splendid Selznick. He makes hysterical commitment appealing by portraying it as an outgrowth of love for movies, and unsympathetic aspects of his personality (voiced in interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, Joan Fontaine and other colleagues) are watered down or eliminated. Castellaneta’s imitations of various “GWTW” scenes are priceless, including vocal takeoffs of aggressive Scarlett, macho Rhett, childlike Prissy, uptight Ashley and sugary Melanie. He has an aptitude for dry delivery, remarking with classic understatement to a frantic Fleming and Hecht, “I know these aren’t ideal literary conditions.”

As Selznick’s ditsy secretary, Meagen Fay is gifted enough to wring a variety of expressions from her one-dimensional role. Much of the time, she sounds like an update of high-pitched Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Alexander Dodge’s circular, art deco office is first rate, and he turns it into a wild war zone with mountains of paper on the floor, overturned cardboard boxes and piles of banana skins and peanut shells. Sound designer Paul Peterson has an f/x field day, accompanying narration of the story’s high points with appropriate background noises.

Most memorable is the sight of all three men testing out palatable ways for Scarlett to slap Prissy, whacking each other around mercilessly and demonstrating how outstanding they are at physical comedy.

Some material is familiar, such as Selznick’s firing of George Cukor, a move instigated by Clark Gable. What hits home even more is Selznick’s rage at Louis B. Mayer (“My father-in-law is waiting for me to fall on my ass”) and how desperate he is to move out from Mayer’s tyrannical thumb. 

There’s an on-target sequence that sums up Hollywood’s highly flexible integrity and shows why this celluloid satire has a shot at longevity. Selznick initially claims, with perfect sincerity, that he’ll never change Mitchell’s words, then adds “frankly” to the famous last line, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” Needled by Hecht for the alteration, he responds humorously and unapologetically, “Yeah, well, I’m the producer.”

Moonlight and Magnolias

Old Globe Theater; San Diego; 612 seats; $55 top

Production: An Old Globe West Coast premiere presentation of a play in two acts by Ron Hutchinson. Directed by John Rando.

Creative: Sets, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Robert Morgan; lighting, Phil Monat; sound, Paul Peterson; stage manager, Lisa Porter; production supervisor, Craig Noel. Opened and reviewed July 21, 2005; runs through Aug. 14. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: David O'Selznick - Dan Castellaneta Miss Poppenghul - Meagen Fay Ben Hecht - David Manis Victor Fleming - Tom McGowan

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