Theater Review: 'Moonlight & Magnolias' a savvy end to the season

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NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — Sam Slack's sleek set for The Theater Barn's generally stylish, well-acted production of "Moonlight & Magnolias," is a testament to taste and order, both of which will come undone by the time Ron Hutchinson's comedy about the near unmaking of "Gone With the Wind" has run its just-under-two-hour course. But art and commerce come together beneath the debris of peanut shells, banana peels and discarded clumps of paper that litter the office of movie producer David O. Selznick, who is risking everything on a screen version of Margaret Mitchell's overwhelmingly popular Civil War novel, "Gone With the Wind."

Three weeks into production, Selznick has fired director George Cukor and shut down production of Hollywood's most-talked about, most eagerly anticipated film, over his dissatisfaction with the screenplay he's been left by playwright Sidney Howard, the latest in a long, long line of undistinguished efforts by distinguished writers.

On a gamble, Selznick (played by Ryan Palmer with galvanic, often roguish, force and unyielding determination) has hired noted Chicago journalist Ben Hecht (Mark Shane-Lydon in a generally acceptable if also self-aware, often vaguely defined performance), who has been fashioning a hugely successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter. Selznick also has used his influence to pull director Victor Fleming (a tremendously amiable and engaging Michael Baldwin) off the set of "The Wizard of Oz" and appropriated him for his epic; a move for which Fleming seems hugely grateful and relieved.

Working under intense pressure to get "Gone With the Wind" back on track in less than a week and before the rumor mill starts grinding, Selznick summons Hecht and Fleming to his handsomely appointed office, locks the doors and informs the two that none of the three of them is leaving Selznick's studio until the work of crafting a new screenplay is done. There will be no contact with the outside world. They will live on a diet of peanuts and bananas supplied on Selznick's order by his increasingly harried, if super-efficient, secretary Miss Poppenghul (a hard-working, credible Emma Simon).

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For the young Selznick, the stakes couldn't be higher. He is determined to come out from under the shadow of his father-in-law, Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer, an industry force to be reckoned with, and fashion a career in his own right; in his own name. Anticipation among moviegoers is high, but industry insiders are hugely skeptical about the project's success

Selznick is determined to hold true to Mitchell's narrative and words, even while Hecht — who is not above accepting the $15,000 he is given by Selznick for his efforts — raises moral doubts about making a film that asks audiences to sympathize with a cruel, inhuman, exploitative system to sustain a privileged way of life and economy. Hutchinson's social conscience explores the notion if Hollywood as being emblematic of broader issues in American culture — bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, economic inequality; what it means to be seen as "The Other" in a pluralistic society..

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The after-story here is that, in a year that also saw the release of such now-classics as "Wuthering Heights," "Stagecoach," "Of Mice and Men," "Dark Victory," "Goodbye Mr. Chips:" and, of course, "The Wizard of Oz," "Gone With the Wind went on to become the year's top-grossing film at just under $200 million and won Oscars, not only as best film, but also for Fleming, its female star Vivien Leigh, and Hattie McDaniel as best supporting actress.

But in the now of "Moonlight and Magnolias," none of that, despite Selznick's conviction. is a remote possibility. Hecht and Fleming dismiss Mitchell's novel, at first, as another moonlight and magnolias bodice ripper.

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Hecht's unfamiliarity with the book prompt Selznick and Fleming to act it out for an initially skeptical, unwilling Hecht.

The first half of director Sky Vogel's largely adroit, savvy production moves swiftly and nimbly, with crisp, impeccable timing that evokes that rapid-fire rhythm of mid-to-late 1930s/early 1940s filmmaking.

Selznick's studio is a physical wreck as the second act begins. That detritus, in a way, becomes somewhat emblematic of a production that, in the second half, loses a chunk of the momentum it achieved in the first half. Much of that is due to Hutchinson's writing as dialogue takes on tone of political debate.

Still, Hutchinson's writing is not without its sly wit and even when Vogel's production flags, Palmer, in solid David O. Selznick style, virtually singlehandedly moves things along. He can be a sheer force of theatrical nature and we are all the better for it. So is "Moonlight & Magnolias" which, warts and all, brings an urbane, theatrically savvy end to a season that has, for the most part, fallen short of its modest ambitions.


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