Review by Josie Grant
What if you could get a glimpse into one day in the life of a legendary Hollywood producer? How about five days? And what if those five days were the make it or break it moments of the most successful film in box office history? Ron Hutchinson’s farce Moonlight and Magnolias provides us just such an insight.
The year is 1939. A year film historians often rate as the greatest in the history of Hollywood, producing classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to name a few. Halfway through Hollywood’s Golden Age, audience members filled theaters like never before to witness some of the most important movie industry milestones such as the first color movie, the first talking movie, The Oscars, and animated cartoons. It was hard times and America lapped up the needed escapism that Hollywood offered.
David O. Selznick, a film studio executive, was fiercely determined to prove himself during this time of greatness and make his new project a success. He began filming what was probably history’s most long-awaited movie.
Production on Gone With The Wind, an adaptation of the 1936 best-selling novel by Margaret Mitchell, started years earlier and was difficult and often delayed. A three year national search was launched to find his Scarlet O’Hara (Vivian Leigh) and negotiations of an exorbitant contract to secure his Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) were reached. Once filming began however, Selznick had a problem. The screenplay just didn’t work. Unwilling to compromise on his vision, he shut down production, which cost him thousands of dollars a day, and summoned famed screenwriter Ben Hecht, who had never read the book, and director Victor Fleming, pulled from the set of Wizard of Oz, possibly for questionable behavior, to his office. Although both men doubted the success of an overlong epic historical romance film based during the civil war, they agreed to give him five days. To ensure the re-write was successful, Selznick instructed his long-suffering secretary Miss Poppenghul to hold all calls and provide a steady supply of peanuts and bananas, and locked the door to his office, imprisoning the three men with only a bathroom, a typewriter, and the aforementioned “brain food.” The re-write begins.
Hutchinson’s play is based on an excerpt from Hecht’s autobiography about the five day event. It’s easy to imagine a playwright being intrigued by such a scene and the scenario lends itself to the kind of Hollywood fodder people love. But it was also a time when anti-semitism was a concern to the Jewish community in Hollywood and America at large and the playwright makes an attempt to address these racial challenges. Given the political climate in 2019, many of the references may strike a chord differently than perhaps they would have in 2004 when the play was written. But given Hutchinson’s cursory exploration of such issues, comedy prevails.
There are many ways the portrayal of those five days could go awry. The frenetic nature of the play could, in less capable hands, fall flat, leaving audiences either bored or overstimulated. But director Michael J. Frohnhoefer hits a happy medium between the two. He has perfectly cast each character and his set design, complete with a replicate of Selznick’s office, allows a space in which the actors can work their magic and thrive.
Rick Meyer, as David O. Selznick, delivers a very strong performance, portraying the famed producer’s passion with ease. He embodies the character’s dogged determination which drives the action from start to finish. The energy he puts into Selznick never makes you nervous, but instead compels you to get right in the thick of it with him and get the job done. When the two men he entrusts to help him achieve success contemplate leaving, he has you crying out “no, don’t go!” And when he implores his fellow prisoners with “I can taste this movie” you know exactly what he’s feeling.
Robert McCarthy is charming as the tightly wound but dashing director Victor Fleming. Sure he once slapped Judy Garland – “but just once!” McCarthy’s portrayal of a character who could easily come across as arrogant and unlikable instead has just the right amount of confidence and empathy to counteract his burly demeanor. He may be under contract, but, you believe he is also personally invested in getting this project off the ground.
Ben Hecht, the play’s straight man, is aptly played by Jim Granger. The character provides most of the political statement that Hutchinson intended, but Granger’s delivery is never overbearing. He also delivers some of the plays funniest lines and does so in a way that brings about true belly laughs at the absurdity of the situation.
Rounding out the cast is Molly Feibel, whose portrayal of Miss Poppenghul leaves you wondering why the character is not seen more often. She’s perfect as the ever ready, ever on call, step ahead of you secretary and you can’t help but chuckle every time she was at the right place at the wrong time.
With its slapstick comedy and frantic pace, the play could feel overwhelming. But this ensemble handles the material like pros and keeps you glued to the action from the desperate summoning of movie industry moguls, to the balled-up discarded script and banana peel laden finish.
Moonlight and Magnolias plays through Saturday, July 27th at County Players at the Falls Theatre, 2682 W Main Street, Wappingers Falls, NY 845-298-1491 www.countyplayers.org.