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Theater Review

Fiddle-dee-deeing around

The frantic rewriting of the script for 'Gone With the Wind' is the

October 21, 2009|David C. Nichols

"It's only in the movies where the dead can walk," David O. Selznick tells Ben Hecht at the climax of "Moonlight and Magnolias," in its Orange County premiere at the Laguna Playhouse. He adds, "You have any other way to live forever?"

So goes the ostensible point of author Ron Hutchinson's frenetic, fact-based comedy about legendary producer Selznick's obsessive drive to film "Gone With the Wind." At base, "Moonlight" wants to resurrect the ethos of Hecht and Charles MacArthur's "The Front Page," via a slender conceit that relies heavily on our familiarity with the iconic movie based on Margaret Mitchell's 1937 Pulitzer-winning novel.

That publishing landmark opens "Moonlight and Magnolias," as Selznick (Jeff Marlow) incredulously asks Hecht (Leonard Kelly-Young), "You didn't read it?" "No," says Hecht. After repeating the question, to an identical response, Selznick accelerates -- "You didn't read the book?" Their ensuing rat-a-tat establishes the situational particulars in breakneck manner.

It's 1939, and Selznick, having just fired director George Cukor after three weeks of shooting, has risked halting the costly production. Today, pacing about his Art Deco office (sleekly realized by scenic designer Bruce Goodrich), Selznick needs "a scenario I can believe in." That's where script doctor Hecht comes in.

Having yanked macho director Victor Fleming (Brendan Ford) away from "The Wizard of Oz," Selznick instructs Miss Poppenghul (Emily Eiden), his preternaturally efficient secretary, to hold all calls, even from father-in-law and nemesis Louis B. Mayer -- though everybody else from Vivien Leigh to Ed Sullivan somehow gets through. For the next five days, Selznick and Fleming will act out the book for Hecht, subsisting on a brain-feeding diet of bananas and peanuts, and churn out a screenplay.

Guess what happens, despite Fleming's workmanlike disinterest in Selznick's magnum opus and Hecht's cynical disbelief in its commercial chances. Before the denouement arrives, the office has become a Marx Brothers-flavored disaster area and cinema history looms just beyond the bruised egos and broken blood vessels.

Director Andrew Barnicle attacks this calculated vehicle with disciplined propulsion and a shrewd design team, especially lighting designer Paulie Jenkins. The likable cast is uniformly adept at broad slapstick and rapid-fire exchanges. Marlow evokes Selznick's larger stature by sheer force of will, hurling himself into the clattering dialogue and action. The ever-dependable Ford reveals ripe gifts for physical comedy, and Eiden gets laughs merely from the variety of ways she delivers "Yes, Mr. Selznick" and "No, Mr. Selznick." Kelly-Young makes an agreeably brisk, low-key Hecht, though the role is nearly impossible, expressing the writer's distrust of Hollywood's anti-Semitism and avoidance of social awareness in awkwardly polemic ways.

That distracting strain is one serious shortcoming to Hutchinson's script, for all his zesty facility with funny lines. Equally dubious are the endless obviated in-jokes fashioned from historic hindsight, Selznick in particular seeming self-prophetic to the detriment of credibility.

Although a handsomely appointed, crowd-pleasing diversion, "Moonlight and Magnolias" is the theatrical equivalent of a Turner Classic Movies special. Frankly, my dear, I didn't give a damn.

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'Moonlight

and Magnolias'

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 1.

Price: $35 to $65

Contact: (949) 497-2787

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

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