Theater Review: Moonlight And Magnolias
In 1939, movie producer David O. Selznick locked screenwriter Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming in his office for the better part of a week to force Hecht to come up with a screenplay.
Most of the details of what took place in that room aren’t known, but what came out of it is considered the most popular movie ever made: “Gone with the Wind.”
“Moonlight and Magnolias” – currently at the SpotlightersTheatre – is playwright Ron Hutchinson’s speculation about what might have gone on in Selznick’s office.
Compared to Margaret Mitchell’s florid, Civil War saga of love, rejection, hope, despair, birth, death and, of course, the burning of Atlanta, watching a guy sitting at a typewriter isn’t exactly earth-shattering.
There has been some action before the play begins. Selznick has shut down production and fired the movie’s original director, George Cukor, and its original screenwriter, Sidney Howard (who, nonetheless, ended up getting credit).
When the play begins, Selznick already has had rewrites by everyone from Charles MacArthur to F. Scott Fitzgerald. He coerces Hecht into taking the job, only to discover that the newspaperman-turned-screenwriter may be, as Selznick puts it, “the only person on the face of the planet” who hasn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book.
So, Selznick and Fleming act out scenes from the novel for Hecht. It’s one of the activities that has actually been documented from that screenwriting cram session. It’s also one of the rare instances of dramatic action in Hutchinson’s play.
Thom Eric Sinn plays a controlling Selznick – and Scarlett; Tony Colavito is a wary Fleming – and Ashley and Melanie and even Prissy; and David Shoemaker is Hecht – jaded, sarcastic and very skeptical.
There are a few other dramatic touches, including a fight, well- and comically choreographed by Larry Malkus. And, director Michael Byrne Zemarel adds some clever bits, particularly the introduction of some of the movie’s music at appropriate moments and a humorous, inspired depiction of Fleming’s Melanie about to give birth.
Zemarel’s actors establish their characters’ distinct personalities and rivalries. And a fourth cast member, Rachel Roth, does a notable job imbuing Selznick’s assistant with period flair. She may seem like the quintessential “yes-man,” er, woman, but she wields power of her own.
Selznick belittles her and everyone else. Hecht rails against the novel’s politics. Fleming just wants to get the thing done. The play includes Hollywood gossip; much talk about Selznick’s relationship to his father-in-law, studio head Louis B. Mayer; and, especially in the second act, long harangues about everything from anti-Semitism to the purpose of movies.
Frankly, to borrow some of Margaret Mitchell’s most famous words, should we “give a damn”? Certainly, if you’re a huge “Gone with the Wind” fan. For the rest of us, well, “tomorrow is another” play.