BWW Reviews: A Hootenanny of Hijinks at Penfold Theatre Co¬'s MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS
Fiddle-dee-dee! As God as my witness, I'll never laugh this hard again! With MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS, a behind-the-scenes comedy about the film version of Gone With the Wind, Penfold Theater Company delights audiences with some good ol'-fashioned 1930s Hollywood antics.
Whether you're a Gone With the Wind fan or (like yours truly) have never seen the film, don't worry. You'll think the show is a hoot no matter what. The fast-paced, almost vaudevillian comedy follows the true backstage story of producer David Selznick (played here by Penfold's Artistic Director Ryan Crowder), who a mere three weeks into shooting Gone With the Wind fires the writer and hires Ben Hecht to re-write the script over a measly five days. There's just one problem. Despite that the film is based on a best-selling novel, Hecht hasn't read the book. So Selznick locks the two of them, plus the films new director, Victor Fleming (Jay Fraley) in his office until they have a script. Hilarity and lots of peanut-throwing ensues.
While playwright Ron Hutchinson, best known for his screenplays for The Island of Dr. Moreau and the 2004 miniseries version of Traffic, uses these historical characters and their very real but very unbelievable dilemma to great comedic effect but also infuses the piece with some interesting thoughts on social inequality and injustice in America and the irony of two Jews (Selznick and Hecht) glorifying on film an era of American slavery.
Though there is some heavy political and social commentary, much of which is still relevant and poignant today, it doesn't bog the piece down or make it preachy. Instead, the political moments seem to exist mostly to allow the audience to catch the breath they've lost from laughing their butts off. Director Robert Faires keeps the show light and exuberant. He allows his three main actors to play off each other and build to a riotous, Three Stooges-esque frenzy. Yes, things get over the top (the first three rows of the audience are appropriately labeled "peanut splash zones" as the actors hurl peanuts at each other in one moment), but no matter how absurd the action gets, it never feels out of place or out of character. I completely believe that if these three men were forced to live together in a tiny office for five days, they'd clearly go insane. Under Faire's skilled hand, even the scene transitions are handled with playfulness and whimsy as a cast of 1930s-dressed production assistants and make-up girls ugly up the set and the three main characters.
And while the gradual dilapidation of the sets and costumes adds to the fun, it is in its own way a bit of a shame. The set, designed by Aaron Bell, is one of the best I've seen on The City Theatre's stage. It's a very realistic, believable office complete with an ornate couch and a large wooden desk. Bell also brilliantly incorporates a hidden film screen in the set, on which clips of Gone With the Wind are occasionally played. Glenda Barnes's costumes are appropriate to the period and to the characters, and it's fun to see the pieces get dirtier and more wrinkled as the evening progresses. And the lighting by Aeric Hansen is fairly realistic with the exception of the characters' few breakthrough moments in which Aeric gives them some fantasy lighting.
But despite the brilliance of the writing and the creative team, it's really the cast that makes MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS work. As screenwriter Ben Hecht, Dave Buckman is acerbically cynical. He clearly enjoys the sarcasm in his lines, and his reluctance to write a scene in which Scarlett O'Hara slaps a child slave is one of the funniest but also most thought-provoking moments of the night. Jay Fraley, last seen in TIGERS BE STILL at Hyde Park Theatre, is a side-splitter with his take on director Victor Fleming. From his entrance, in which he complains about the orgiastic behavior of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, to the end of the play, Fraley gets a laugh with nearly every line, and his rivalry with the character of Hecht is delectable. But by far his most enjoyable moment comes when he is called upon to act as the character of Melanie in Gone With the Wind so Hecht can write her childbearing scene. And though she gets very little stage time, AiDan Sullivan is a scene-stealer as Selznick's often confused gum-chewing secretary, Miss Poppenghul.
Yet the real stand-out is Ryan Crowder as producer David Selznick. While Crowder's baby-face makes it somewhat hard to believe at first sight that his character is one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, his acting more than makes up for it. His Selznick is a ballsy, manipulative, ends-justify-the-means bastard, but somehow a loveable one. Crowder's oscillations between the type-A Selznick and the dainty Scarlett O'Hara, whom he acts out for Hecht, are downright uproarious.
MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS, much like the film that inspired it, is a triumphant work where all the elements have come together. The writing, directing, and acting are all top-notch. This is one rip-snorting riot. It may make a Southern Belle Scarlett blush and, well, turn scarlet, but you'll absolutely love it.
Run time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 10 minute intermission.
MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS, produced by Penfold Theater Company, plays The City Theater in Austin TX now thru October 21. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm. Tickets are $20 regular and $18 for students and seniors.
For tickets and information, visit www.penfoldtheatre.org.
Photo: (L-R) Ryan Crowder, Dave Buckman, and Jay Fraley. Photo by Kimberley Mead.