1/16/2019        MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS                                    Georgia Ensemble Theatre


****  ( B+ ) 



(Add this one to the “It works no matter where it’s done” pigeonhole.  Much of this review is copied directly from my reaction to the Alliance’s 2005 production of this play, as filtered through my reaction to CenterStage North’s 2011 production.)


People who enjoy politics and sausage (or so the old joke goes) should never watch them being made. Thanks to Ron Hutchinson’s comedy Moonlight and Magnolias, we can now add “People who like Gone With the Wind" to this.


The Studio Lot Bungalow/Office of Producer David O. Selznick.
Off-camera is trusty Gal Friday Miss Poppenghul.
Selznick and “Script Doctor” Ben Hecht are face-to-face, mid-argument.
Selznick is shocked.

Selznick: You’ve never read the book?
Hecht: I’ve never read the book.

{Insert here 105 minutes of desperation as Selznick pulls director Victor Fleming off The Wizard of Oz to help him and Hecht come up with a new screenplay for Gone With the Wind, a property only Selznick has any faith in. Add a bajillion reams of paper arranged in piles and drifts, a bushel of bananas, and enough

peanuts to bankroll an Allergy Sensitivity Workshop. For flavor, add some Intelligentsia vs Mass Market commentary, some Hollywood Dishing, some goofy re-enacting, and a lot of laughs. End with four exhausted actors and one soon-to-filmed classic.}



What I really liked about this play was how it used the sort of crisp dialog and pacing found in actual Ben Hecht screenplays (think His Girl Friday). The “serious political” bits in Act Two don’t really slow down the pace, and the attitudes of Fleming and Hecht reflect the mindset of those of us who never really liked GWTW. But, Selznick’s obsession and vision are no different than any other artist who has a definite goal and is willing to coerce, bribe, and bully anyone he needs to help him achieve that vision. What I liked was the tacit implication that anything can be turned into art if it comes with that kind of inner fire.

If I had to complain about anything, it would be about the character of Hecht. We are constantly told that he is Hollywood’s best “script doctor” (and, indeed, critical consensus is that he was just that) and Selznick is obsessed with keeping him on the payroll. But we never really see him come up with any good lines or ideas. His function in the script seems to be only to take down the ideas Selznick and Fleming come up with. But, since the structure of the play is Selznick and Fleming acting out the book for Hecht’s benefit, this can, in the end, be forgiven.

William S. Murphey IS Selznick, making choice after choice that bring this larger-than-life character to, well, larger-than-life. I believed that he was a man who could browbeat these heavy-duty collaborators, artists in their own right, to buy into his vision. This is not to downgrade the other performances.   I really liked Googie Uterhardt’s Ben Hecht, who brought enough passionate conviction to the play that I quite forgot about the script quibble I talked about above.  Bart Hansard is an absolute hoot as Fleming, dripping disdain for writers and “un-manly men,” every inch the “hack for hire” that modern critics like to categorize him; make no bones about it, this is the pre-Auteur era, and this will always be a “Selznick” movie, never a “Fleming film.”  And I really loved the sassy spin Mahalia Jackson puts on the ever-put-upon Miss Poppenghul.  Fourteen years ago, I praised Tess Malis Kincaid for finding an infinite number of ways to say “Yes, Mr. Selznick” and “No, Mr. Selznick.”  Ms. Jackson finds just as many, adding her own almost-cliched “You Best Not Mess with Me” ethnic spin that is a true delight.  The cast clicks with ensemble-excellence, and you can just bet the photo-shoot to create the Ad Campaign was more fun than a hotel full of munchkins,

If James Donadio directs with a more deliberate pace than prior productions’ break-neck speeds, it is not so deliberate that anyone would mistake this for a Pinter piece.  But I did find myself smiling more often than laughing.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  Stephanie Polhemus has designed and build a California-esque set with large upstage windows that eventually become a recognizable sight gag, Connor McVey’s lighting shuffles roses and blues and ambers to give the whole thing a good day/night feel while still evoking the period. And Emmie Tuttle’s costumes seem period-true, right down to the boxers and T-Shirts.

Yes, Moonlight and Magnolias is lightweight stuff, with a healthy spoonful of contemporary political commentary made palatable with a schoonerful of smiles. It has also become VERY popular with regional and non-professional theatres, especially in the south.  But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – lightweight stuff has its place, and can be invigorating when it’s done right. This one is done right!


   --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #GETMoonlight)

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