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Moonlight and Magnolias, at MTC Stage I

Ron Hutchinson's Moonlight and Magnolias, which we saw last month at MTC's Stage I, is an amusing, often very funny farce about making movies. The absurdities and improbabilities of a hopelessly collaborative art become the bedroom doors and draped balconies of old Feydeau, and the characters slipping through them are the inconvenient truths that Hollywood's pretences have always found it vital to keep off our minds. It is important to note that the actual doors on the set open and close very infrequently, and the only person to pass through them, in all three of the play's acts, is a beleaguered secretary. The movie in the making is none other than Gone With The Wind, but the play does not take place on a sound stage. We're a few days into production, and already the producer, David O. Selznick (Douglas Sills), realizes that he needs a new script. He needs a new director, too. Because Gone With The Wind is already the most talked-about movie project in the land, Selznick takes the desperate measure of locking himself up in his office for a week with Victor Fleming (who replaced initial director George Cukor - played by David Rasche) and Ben Hecht (Matthew Arkin). Hecht, a celebrated script doctor or rewrite man, balks at the assignment and would seem the last man to take it on, because he hasn't even read the book.

The need to bring Hecht up to speed is the engine that drives Moonlight and Magnolias, for Selznick quickly sees that he and Fleming will have to pantomime the principal scenes of the book so that Hecht can simply write them up. As Selznick and Fleming respectively, Douglas Sills and David Rasche have to do a lot of camping about as Scarlett and Melanie (among others), and perhaps the best thing about Moonlight is the freshness of their rigmaroles. Matthew Arkin's Ben Hecht gets off to a flat start, and the role is hampered by too heavy a dose of message. Hecht, after all, is a comic realist who pins the offense of making a straightforward movie that solicits viewers' concern for slaveholders to Selznick's Anglophiliac delusions. He may indeed have the funniest moment: in a moment of rebellion, Hecht proposes a speech for Missy to recite upon being slapped by Scarlett, in which she wishes every white oppressor, including Miss Melanie, dead. The very idea of such a speech is preposterous, but it is also thought-provoking. I don't think much of Gone With The Wind myself; to me it's a screwball comedy stuck in the body of a Biblical epic, full of inadvertent laughs and moments of awful taste, redeemed only by Carol Burnett & Co.'s tirelessly brilliant parody, "Went With The Wind." I can't really look at Clark Gable's Rhett without seeing Harvey Korman's Rat. But until Moonlight and Magnolias I had never gotten very worked up about the rude fact that Scarlett and Ashley live on the sweat of black folks' sweat, and that Margaret Mitchell's book is nothing less than the nostalgic portrayal of feudalism.

The cast of four, directed by Lynne Meadow herself, is outstanding, with Douglas Sills almost acrobatically impersonating the volatile Selznick. Margo Skinner plays Selznick's secretary, Miss Poppenghul as the dutiful transcriber of unceasing memoranda pertaining to details great and silly. Her occasional appearances all serve to underline the abandon with which the men throw off their street clothes and the restraints that go with them in the half juvenile, half lunatic pursuit of a bankable property. Moonlight and Magnolias is set at the unseemly intersection of art and commerce, of aspiration and what the traffic will bear - the moment at which every movie is born. It is just as well that Selznick, Fleming and Hecht are only figurative midwives.

Moonlight and Magnolias was given its first production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago last year. I assume that the MTC production, directed by Artistic Director Lynne Meadow, started from scratch. The set, by Santo Loquasto, provided enough obstacles to keep the characters feinting and sparring. Jane Greenwood's costumes set the period note with authority; Selznick's lapels were as wide as a peacock's tail. The lighting and sound, by Rui Rita and Obadiah Eaves, were quietly effective. When I saw a listing for Rick Sordelet as the "Fight Director," I was puzzled, because while I recall a constant hosility between Fleming and Hecht, I don't remember the kind of fight that would have to be staged. So I called Kathleen, and, while she remembered a scuffle she didn't think that it was "anything to write home about." If a troupe of capable actors mounts a performance of Moonlight and Magnolias in your town, I'm sure that you'll find its blend of vaudeville romp and reverberating Hollywood history peculiarly potent, an interesting companion to "Went With The Wind." (May 2005)

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