by Hugh Hunter
“Moonlight and Magnolias” (2004) now running at Stagecrafters, takes you inside the making of “Gone with the Wind” in 1939. It is based on a true event when David O. Selznick famously stopped production three weeks into the shoot.
He fired the director and screenwriter, hiring Victor Fleming and Ben Hecht to take their place. According to Hollywood lore, Selznick then locked himself up with them for five days. In “Moonlight,” playwright Ron Hutchinson imagines what transpired.
For me, the execution of “Moonlight” is better than the script as director Tracie Lango creates a show just bursting with energy. The gorgeous set is Selznick’s executive office, replete with 1930s’ period furniture, old fashioned telephones and a clanking typewriter. Lurking in a rear window we see the iconic, hillside Hollywood sign (set Scott Killinger).
On occasion, Lango uses lights to make the stage seem luminous. Together with background music taken from the film itself, the theater sometimes takes on a fleeting movie-like aura (light design, Gilbert Todd; sound design, Bill Bansbach).
Most energetic of all are the stellar performances of the three core actors. While secretary Miss Poppenguhl (Judy Kinsley) makes funny cameo appearances, the play is about these three guys who tear each other down en route to creating an epic film.
Jeff Ragan shines as the movie mogul Selznick, very comical in his drive for greatness. Selznick never stops pacing the room as he beats down all arguments and bangs heads. Ragan must be exhausted by the end of the night.
Especially hilarious are the female impersonations of Selznick and Fleming (Carl Heyde) as they act out some of Scarlett O’Hara’s well-known scenes, always with an undertone of dismissive ridicule. It is left to screenwriter Hecht (Mark Grayson) to state the obvious: “Why are we doing this?”
That question never really gets answered. Hecht argues to Selznick that Jews should know better than to make a movie that glorifies the antebellum South. As he becomes more insistent, it begins to interfere with the play’s overall tone of parody and send-up.
It comes to a head when Selznick insists that the script include the scene where Scarlett slaps Prissy. Hecht roars his disapproval. “Your heroine is someone who slaps a slave girl?” Then we quickly segue to a literal slapstick sequence, and you don’t know if you are watching The Three Stooges or a Saul Bellow novel.
We bounce around this way until Selznick finally buys off Hecht by handing him a big check for the Jewish Relief Fund to help Jews escape the Holocaust. At that point we find ourselves in a very un-funny place where the persecuted Jew is running the plantation.
So why “did” they do it? I suppose for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks. “Gone with the Wind” was where the money was. Scarlett would understand.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Moonlight and Magnolias” will run through Dec. 11. Tickets available at 215-247-9913 or at the door.
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