Hollywood, 1939. The production of Gone with the Wind — arguably the most eagerly anticipated movie of the decade — is in chaos. Producer David O. Selznick (Griffin Voltmann) has just fired the director and scrapped the script, and he’s bringing in gifted screenwriter Ben Hecht (J.T. Spivy) to do a rewrite. Only Hecht — as he keeps reminding an increasingly frazzled Selznick — hasn’t read the book.
Add to this mix the volatile director Victor Fleming (Michael J. Fisher), whom Selznick yanks from The Wizard of Oz to take over this troubled film, and the stage is set for fireworks.
So begins Moonlight and Magnolias, Ron Hutchinson’s comedy-drama now running at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. At first, the characters are clearly delineated, with Spivy’s air of laid-back amusement playing nicely off Voltmann’s edginess and Fisher’s brashness. But as work progresses on the script, with Selznick and Fleming gamely acting out the story for a bemused Hecht, tempers flare and personalities start to deteriorate, to much audience laughter. Hecht’s over-the-top imitation of his colleagues’ attempts at acting even earned a spontaneous and well-deserved burst of applause.
The men are locked in Selznick’s office for five days, subsisting on peanuts and bananas (“brain food,” Selznick claims), with plucky secretary Miss Poppenghul (Hillary Leersnyder) their only link with the outside world. Before it’s over, the once-calm Hecht is in hysterics; Fleming’s gone feral, allowing Fisher to show off an impressive gift for physical comedy; and even the highly competent Miss Poppenghul is much the worse for the wear. As it turns out, it’s Selznick, the most desperate of them all, who serves as the glue that holds it all together, with his stubbornness and his vision powerfully conveyed by Voltmann.
Under Juli Tarabek Blacker’s sure direction, the cast keeps up the snappy pace that makes the play work, and skillfully creates the potent atmosphere of blended idealism, cynicism, and insecurity that gives it its power. Funny as it is, Moonlight and Magnolias doesn’t shy away from the disturbing aspects of Gone with the Wind. As a Jewish man, Hecht is keenly aware of the plight of European Jews under the Nazi regime—as he points out, he can hardly help being aware when so many of them are seeking refuge right there in Hollywood. Hecht pressures Selznick, a fellow Jew, to let his understanding of current affairs and human rights shape his handling of the racial issues in his current project. (Spivy’s face when Hecht finds out there’s a Klan raid in the book is a sight to behold.)
But Selznick is facing other pressures as well — constant hounding by his father-in-law, the legendary Louis B. Mayer; comparisons to the recently deceased young producer Irving Thalberg; and memories of his own father’s slide into poverty. He’s willing to ruthlessly subsume all other considerations to his need for a hit movie, even as Voltmann’s performance shows the tension created in him by these clashing values.
Stacey Becker and Ken Brown have designed an ideal set for all this madness to take place, a large and airy office (complete with gorgeous vintage movie posters on the walls) that gives the cast plenty of room for slap fights, chases, imaginary childbirth, and all the other exertions involved in a small cast’s acting out an epic melodrama. The comic antics may seem like an odd fit with the human drama simultaneously playing out, but Blacker and her talented cast make it all work beautifully and show the power of story to draw people together even when it can’t fully reconcile their differences or solve their problems.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.