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By Robert W. Bethune
Ron Hutchinson’s “Moonlight and Magnolias,” now in production at Meadow Brook Theatre, adopts a very simple strategy: Lock three guys in a room and don’t let ’em out until it’s over.
The three guys in question are David O. Selznick, played by Loren Bass; Ben Hecht, played by Tom Whalen, and Victor Fleming, played by Wayne David Parker. Their only link to the outside world is Miss Poppenghul, Selznick’s devoted secretary, played by Emily Sutton-Smith. Selznick’s entire career, fortune and reputation are riding on this movie, “Gone With The Wind,” and it’s gone to the dogs. He’s fired the director, canned the screenplay and stopped production altogether. He manages to persuade Ben Hecht, the best rewrite man in Hollywood, to give him five days of work. He pulls Victor Fleming off “The Wizard of Oz” to direct. Problem: Hecht and Fleming hate each other, absolutely oil and water. Locked in Selznick’s office and living on a diet of bananas and peanuts, Selznick and Fleming act out the entire book while Hecht writes the screenplay. Five days later, almost dead, and having come within a hair of killing each other many times, they emerge, screenplay in hand, ready to start filming “Gone with the Wind.”
The show is hilarious. Hutchinson’s dialogue is very much in the style of Ben Hecht himself, as heard in “The Front Page”: rapid-fire, machine-gun rhythms; bold, witty turns of phrase, usually ironic or sarcastic; take-no-prisoners confrontations between extremely strong characters who see no reason to give an inch. One-liners come at a Neil Simon pace. My favorite: “Can’t. Gotta go worm the parakeet.”
All four performances and Dennis North’s direction sizzle with energy. Along with the verbal fun, there’s lots of visual fun as well; there are food fights and slap fests, and by the end of the show, the messiest stage you’ve seen in a long, long time. You know true desperation has set in when a major movie mogul can’t walk across his office without peanuts crunching underfoot.
Like every good comedy, this one is about something serious. Some issues get aired. Selznick and Hecht are Jewish. Fleming isn’t. It’s 1939. Things get tense. Hecht wants the movies to change the world – but he keeps coming back for more Hollywood money. Selznick wants the movies to make people with fifty cents happy – but he wants to be remembered for the greatest movie ever. Hecht insists on the power of the word. Fleming regrets that talking pictures ever came to be; all he wants is the image. The question they ask is terribly simple: “Why are we doing this?”
The answers aren’t final, or even convincing, but they keep these three maniacs going long enough to get the job done. Hecht walks away with $15,000 – a lot of money in 1939. Fleming walks away with his usual fee rather than a piece of the gross. Selznick and his studio walk away with “Gone With the Wind.”
We walk away having laughed at them and with them for two rewarding hours.
Sometimes, theater just plain works.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
‘Moonlight and Magnolias’
Meadow Brook Theatre, on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester. Wed.-Sun., through April 13. Tickets: $22-$38. For information: 248-377-3300 or http://www.mbtheatre.com.