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Chris Caswell, Ryan Fitts and B.J. Wilkes in Moonlight and Magnolias. Photo credit: Donna DesIsles
There’s a situation ripe for comedy in Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias, now onstage at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre in the inaugural production of the nonprofit PLATO organization presenting its shows there. And there’s more than a little bit of truth to the story of how legendary producer David O. Selznick, legendary writer Ben Hecht and legendary director Victor Fleming spent a week in a locked room to produce a finished script for the titanic movie Gone with the Wind.
First of all, you’ve got the nature of the men themselves: Selznick (Chris Caswell), a Jew and the son of a failed father, still feeling like an outsider in Hollywood and rolling all the dice to forge ahead with his masterpiece; Hecht (B.J. Wilkes), the Chicago newspaperman who’s also a Jew and leans liberal in his politics on the verge of World War II; and Fleming (Ryan Fitts), the sort of tyrannical but accomplished director who can get away with slapping Judy Garland during production of The Wizard of Oz, just because he is who he is.
And then there’s the boiler-room pressure of trying to do the impossible: rewrite the script of Margaret Mitchell’s massive novel to shape it into a viable if still long movie, in just five days. Throw in Selznick’s obedient but increasingly frazzled secretary (Alana Opie), his belief that “digestive juices will interfere with the creative ones” (thereby serving his collaborators only bananas and peanuts to eat) and finally, this conceit: Hecht, despite the millions of ardent GWTW fans, has never read the book. So Fleming and Selznick have to act out the storyline for him.
It sounds like fun, and occasionally it is. But Moonlight and Magnolias never really achieves the level of frantic comic pace it seems like it should, despite the discarded papers littering the floor and the dishevelment of both mind and body that comes with little or no sleep for the characters. The playwright, understandably, throws into the mix the discussion of racism, both in the Civil War-era novel (there’s a lot of dialogue about that famous slap of slave girl Prissy) and in Hollywood itself, where Jews may run the studios but aren’t really members of the town’s exclusive “club.” But too much talk, at high volume, threatens to make the audience tune out.
The cast, under the direction of Carole Kleinberg, certainly works hard, throwing themselves into the physicality of their roles. None of them is particularly reminiscent of their real-life counterparts; Caswell is older than Selznick was in 1939, Fitts doesn’t really have Fleming’s swagger, and Wilkes doesn’t display the toughness of a newspaperman. But there’s no doubt they’re wholeheartedly in the moment and the madness of the play’s action.
Moonlight and Magnolias continues through July 1; for tickets call 366-5454 or go to platoarts.org.