Actors Comedy Lab’s latest fare, Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson, is a bit different from their regular presentations, but that is a good thing. Director of record Rob Rich has deferred the role to producer Bunny Safron for this work; in addition, the play, rather than being the wholly spun humor of the playwright, is actually a comedy based in fact — uh, sort of. The roles the three male characters play are truly legends of Hollywood; all three lived in the Golden Age of Film that existed before the spawn of World War II.
Set in the office of producing legend David O. Selznick, Moonlight and Magnolias is the possible scenario that might have taken place on that fateful date in 1939 when Selznick shuts down the soundstage of his soon-to-be major blockbuster, Gone with the Wind. Fending off both the press and the cast — not to mention his larger-than-life father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer — Selznick (David McClutchey) has already brought in master screenwriter and close friend Ben Hecht (Seth Blum). The script he has already been shooting for three weeks is a disaster, and Selznick asks of Hecht a massive personal favor: he doesn’t want a rewrite, he wants a whole new script, and he wants it in five days.
Selznick is banking on a new script, a new director, and a superior miracle to pull his fat out of the fire. If he can’t deliver on this film, his whole studio goes the way of his father’s — belly up. And with this script that’s exactly where it’s heading. Selznick has fired director George Cukor, and pulled powerhouse director Victor Fleming (Kevin Ferguson) off The Wizard of Oz. Selznick plunges into a maelstrom by locking the office door and demanding the impossible from Hecht and Fleming. With the aid of his secretary (ably portrayed by Morrisa Nagel), the three try their durnedest to turn out a superior shooting script in the five days Hecht grudgingly has granted his old friend.
If you think that sounds comical, you ain’t just whistling Dixie. Hecht, you see, hasn’t even read the book, much to Selznick’s horrid amazement. Fleming shows up in a fortune of a wardrobe, and the producer’s two brand-new employees proceed to go at each other. Never really friends to begin with, the two hold the usual prejudices for the other’s profession. While the screenwriter and director must work together, they often blame the other for the failure of the final product. Hecht and Fleming go so far as to enter into fisticuffs, not to mention a firestorm of insults and flying peanuts, the speed and dimension of which actually put the front row in harm’s way!
While this script in itself is a rewrite of history — only The New York Times may know the actual story — we all know the outcome: Gone with the Wind is the greatest film of all time. So what if the script is a butchering of the novel, rendering a tome of over a thousand pages three hours of “flashes of light on a strip of film.” These three geniuses, not without a great deal of pain and suffering, manage to hammer out the shooting script for Margaret Mitchell’s masterwork, and getting there is all the fun.
Staged on a set that is ripped from history, with memorabilia that would make a film critic green, this quartet is an ensemble that makes every moment work, and kept Saturday night’s packed house at The Studio at N.C. State University’s Thompson Theatre thundering with laughter. Morrisa Nagel is a jewel of calm in a treacherous storm, impeccably attired and quite the mistress of her duties.
David McClutchey’s David Selznick is the straight man, and little more than a referee, but he knows — nay, he smells this film. Seth Blum’s Ben Hecht is the voice of the imperiled masses, continually hammering his friend for his “selling out” to the lowest common denominator. Where is his understanding and horror at the slaves of Tara, the insanity of the leading lady, the absolute desolation of any plot or understandable character? To Hecht, this is the Assignment from Hell, which forces him to write what his every fiber rebels against. And Kevin Ferguson’s Victor Fleming is the force of division, pummeling Hecht while Selznick forces him to be an actor, to the breaking point. Imagine this giant of a man reduced to huddling under a desk, hilariously struggling to open a banana.
As it should be with all ensembles, this quartet is more than its assembled parts. The very real collaboration of these seasoned Raleigh veterans, under the direction of Bunny Safron, is staggeringly amazing. And the feedback, one with another, keeps the audience glued to their every word and deed, as they themselves attempt the impossible in rendering history — albeit a touch bent — in the making. While we could go on for pages raving about individual performances, it is the meshing of these individuals that makes this play. It just would not be what it undeniably is without that interaction. Go see Moonlight and Magnolias. It is the yardstick you will use to measure every comedy of the coming season.
Actors Comedy Lab presents Moonlight and Magnolias Thursday-Saturday, July 20-22 and 27-29, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 23 and 30, at 3 p.m. in The Studio at Thompson Theatre, corner Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., N.C. State University, Raleigh, North Carolina. $12 Thursday and Sunday and $15 Friday and Saturday, with $2 discount for TheatreFest subscribers. 919/515-1100. Actors Comedy Lab: http://www.actorscomedylab.com/next.html. Gone with the Wind: http://www.franklymydear.com/ (official web site), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031381/ (Internet Movie Database) and http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/online/gwtw/ [inactive 3/07] (University of Texas at Austin Online Exhibition from The David O. Selznick Collection).