BWW Reviews: Playhouse on Park's MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS Wilts Under the Spotlight
A number of years back when I was working at TheaterWorks, I was handed a number of scripts that the theatre was considering for the upcoming season. Among the selections were the usual number of plays that confront racism (it's bad!). Another handful of the plays dealt with anti-Semitism (also bad!). If you have been around the theatrical block as much as I have, you will find that most theaters will present one or more of these plays a season.
Stuck in the center of the stack of plays I was handed was Moonlight and Magnolias, a seemingly enjoyable farce with an entertaining premise. Until it comes down with a serious and debilitating case of what I call S.I.T.S.: "Something Important To Say." I tossed the script aside and said, "Ugh. Next!" M&M may not have been done at TheaterWorks, but it has found a home at Playhouse on Park. And, on stage, it is pretty much as I feared.
In modern theatre, it is very hard to find a play that reaches the stage that isn't grappling with S.I.T.S. Can't fun just be fun every now and then? Playwright Ron Hutchinson's farce refuses to settle on being merely a Marx Brothers-style comedy about the creation of the film script for Gone With the Wind. His play also has to grapple with racism (remember: it's bad!) AND anti-Semitism (also bad!).
Now, when handled well, a play can have a double-case of S.I.T.S and be moving, funny and/or thought-provoking. Playhouse on Park's last production, Driving Miss Daisy tackled institutionalized Southern racism and anti-Semitism with subtlety and humanity. Hartford Stage's The Whipping Man looked at a Civil War collision of Judaism and slavery in a new and intriguing way. With Moonlight and Magnolias, what results is a clunky play that is neither new nor subtle, delivering some laughs while smacking the audience with its good intentions harder than Scarlett O'Hara ever walloped poor Prissy.
The premise of the play is based on a true-ish event where Hollywood producer David O. Selznick (Kevin Elden), director Victor Fleming (Bill Mootos) and screenwriter Ben Hecht (Allan Greenberg) sequestered themselves for two weeks (here reduced to five days) furiously rewriting the script for Gone With the Wind. When these legendary giants of the film industry are manically trying to beat the clock to get production, already stalled after three weeks of filming, the show has a sense of fun and forward thrust. The biggest laughs, of course, trade on the audience's love and knowledge of the film.
But even on the comic side of the equation, there are frustrating elements. One must be willing to set aside the fact that Hutchinson's script essentially reduces screenwriter Ben Hecht's involvement to that of a glorified redactor and noodge while Selznick (who apparently has memorized Margaret Mitchell's 1000+ page novel word-for-word) minces about the stage acting out scenes with Fleming (who somehow knows Butterfly McQueen's peculiar, squeaky voice without having met her). All three masters are reduced to banana and peanut-chucking slapschtick when not educating us on the compromises filmmakers make for their art (another S.I.T.S.).
Clearly, I take issue with the play as a play, but this does not mean I take great issue with Playhouse on Park's production. The set design by Erik D. Diaz is gorgeous. Kevin Elden as Selznick manages to hang on for dear life as he passionately defends his desire to see Gone With the Wind to the screen. Bill Mootos does the strongest job in the cast with his dashing Victor Fleming, although even he cannot make much of the nonsense rivalry that is instantly trumped up between the director and screenwriter Hecht.
Hecht, played by Allan Greenberg, would be a tough row to hoe for any actor as he is principally there to be a social conscience amidst the wackiness. Unfortunately, Greenberg appears to be the least adept of the cast in shifting the gears between the play's extremes, although he appears comfortable in both genres. Rounding out the cast is Denise Walker who is fine in the nigh-on-thankless role of the "Yes, Mr. Selznick/No, Mr. Selznick" secretary. Written mainly for laughs, the part is the only thing with N.I.T.S. (Nothing Important To Say). Apparently feminism is not on Hutchinson's mind.