by Gail M. Burns
Moonlight and Magnolias, currently on the boards at Oldcastle, centers on a story related in William MacAdams’ 1990 biography of Oscar-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht. A scene-setting quotation from MacAdams:
“At dawn on Sunday, February 20, 1939, David Selznick … and director Victor Fleming [who Selznick had pulled away from shooting The Wizard of Oz] shook Hecht awake to inform him he was on loan from MGM and must come with them immediately and go to work on Gone with the Wind (GWTW), which Selznick had begun shooting five weeks before. It was costing Selznick $50,000 each day the film was on hold waiting for a final screenplay rewrite and time was of the essence….Recalling the episode in a letter to screenwriter friend Gene Fowler, [Hecht] said he hadn’t read the novel but Selznick and director Fleming could not wait for him to read it. They would act out scenes based on Sidney Howard’s original script which needed to be rewritten in a hurry. Hecht wrote, ‘After each scene had been performed and discussed, I sat down at the typewriter and wrote it out. Selznick and Fleming, eager to continue with their acting, kept hurrying me. We worked in this fashion for seven days, putting in eighteen to twenty hours a day. Selznick refused to let us eat lunch, arguing that food would slow us up. He provided bananas and salted peanuts….thus on the seventh day I had completed, unscathed, the first nine reels of the Civil War epic.’”
You can see how this incident would intrigue a playwright. What was that week of bananas, peanuts, and an impromptu two-man version of a Civil War epic like? The fact that it could be true and that the British-born Hutchinson has obviously done his homework on the real lives of these three men make Moonlight and Magnolias both tantalizing and overwrought. But history has played a cruel trick since the play was written in 2004.
In February of 1939 Hitler was in power, World War II was imminent (the official start of the war is reckoned from September 1939), and both Selznick and Hecht were Jews. Hecht was a Zionist and a social activist, and he is rightly questioning where the American government would come down on the issue of American Jews. Would they be deported? Cinfined to ghettos? Interred in camps? Or more aggressively persecuted as was happening across Europe? A group of powerful people – including future presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford – were advocating for an isolationist policy under the slogan “America First.” There is a lot of talk in the play about who is a “real American.”
Do you understand why this play is a lot less funny than it was when I last saw it in 2009? It’s déjà vu all over again, as they say.
But even a decade or so ago I found Hutchinson’s choice to work in Hecht’s politics, and Selznick and Fleming’s terror of failing in a highly competitive industry, heavy handed and repetitive. While there are still laughs to be had, the script itself is what bogs down the humor.
At Oldcastle, director Eric Peterson has assembled a talented cast who sadly lack the physical agility to really break this farce open into madcap hilarity. The production I saw in 2009 featured a much younger cast with broader improvisational skills. This production may be much closer to what actually happened – Selznick was 37, Hecht 45, and Fleming 50 in 1939 – but this is not real life and the restraint negates many of the humorous possibilities. No attempt has been made to cast actors who actually look like Selznick, Hecht, and Fleming, which is fine because even the realest of “real Americans” don’t have a clear idea of what these behind the scenes fellows looked like.
As the Wunderkind producer David O. Selznick, Eli Ganias shows the most comedic flare. His Scarlett O’Hara is thoroughly masculine while being innately feminine. It is Selznick’s dogged determination – to the point of insanity – that drives the action, and Ganias generates the energy to make the situation plausible (just because it really happened doesn’t make it any more believable.)
Paul Romero’s Ben Hecht is largely the play’s straight man, and he certainly bears the burden of Hutchinson’s most densely political diatribes. Be he does a wonderful job of becoming more and more believably overwrought as the scenes progress. Luckily in the 1930’s gentlemen wore quite a few layers of clothing – fedora, suit jacket, tie, button down shirt, undershirt, so Costume designer Ursula McCarty and her assistant Kristine Marcoux have the latitude to remove and dishevel the actors’ ensembles bit by bit to infer the passage of time and the men’s increasing distress. Romero’s hair makes a truly hilarious transformation over the course of the three scenes, from neatly slicked down to practically vertical on his scalp.
Nathan Stith is sadly miscast as Victor Fleming. He has none of the panache that a big time Hollywood director of the Golden Age would have projected. Part of the ethos of this character is watching his confident façade crumble, which is impossible since it was never there in the first place.
The trio does function very well as a team – notably in the scene where they debate, and demonstrate the various ways in which Scarlett can slap Prissy during the famous “I don’t know nothing about birthing no babies” scene. At times the actors are too flawless of a team since their characters are supposed to be antagonists locked in a room together until success, or failure, becomes their fate. They do succeed of course, and we all know that GWTW has gone on to be one of the great films of all time, although ironically Sidney Howard, not Ben Hecht got the credit for the screenplay, and, posthumously, the Oscar.
Rounding out the cast is Natalie Wilder as Selznick’s put upon secretary, Miss Poppenguhl. It is a ridiculously small and thankless role which inevitably wastes the talents of the actress who assays it. Wilder does very well with the little she is given by Hutchinson. I am glad she had the chance to play Dorothy Parker in a solo show at Oldcastle the other week.
Richard Howe has designed another glorious Oldcastle set. His vision of David O. Selznick’s office at Selznick International Pictures is an art deco masterpiece in salmon.
I am sorry that history has played such a mean trick and robbed Moonlight and Magnolias of much of its comic punch. This is still a strong and entertaining production, well worth seeing for historical interest as much as anything else in this day and age.
Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson, directed by Eric Peterson, runs June 23-July 9, 2017 at the Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main Street in Bennington, Vermont. Scenic design by Richard Howe; lighting design by David V. Groupé; sound design by Cory Wheat; costume design by Ursula McCarty; costume assistant Kristine Marcoux; properties design by Christine Decker and Jennifer Marcoux; production stage manager Gary Allan Poe.CAST: Eli Ganias as David O. Selznick; Paul Romero as ben Hecht; Nathan Stith as Victor Fleming; and Natalie Wilder as Miss Poppengihl.