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When it comes to comedy targeting the classic novel and film, “Gone With The Wind,” nothing will ever surpass Carol Burnett’s brilliant sketch in which she literally turns the curtains in Tara into her dress, rod and all.
Playwright Ron Hutchison tried, back in 2004, with a play called “Moonlight and Magnolias,” which is now receiving an adept production at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park, through February 10, under the direction of Russell Garrett, whose previous association with the playhouse was playing Phileas Fogg in last year’s production of “Around the World in 80 Days.”
Unfortunately, nothing in Hutchison’s play comes close to being as funny as the Burnett skit, although Garrett does insert a brief slapstick sequence in which peanuts, bananas and office furniture get tossed willy-nilly around the stage. It’s not enough, however, to raise the evening to anything more than a pained comedic reimagination of real historic event: the unprecedented shutdown of the filming of “GWTW” and the complete rewriting of the script in an eleven day period.
Yes, it really happened: producer David O. Selznick, after firing director George Cukor and tossing the original patched together screenplay, brought in new director Victor Fleming, pulled off “The Wizard of Oz,” and acclaimed screenwriter and playwright Ben Hecht to redo the script before word got out and Vivien Leigh grew too restless. Hollywood folklore has it that Fleming and Selznick acted out the various parts as Hecht typed away. Hutchison decided that this story was worth dramatizing, but he seems unsure as the direction he should take. Should this be comedic, since after all, at least one of the men had to act the parts of Melanie and Scarlett as the writing progressed? Or should it be more dramatic, since the very real stakes included Selznick’s reputation and fortune, along with his relationship with studio head and father-in-law Louis B. Meyer. Or perhaps Hutchison wanted to write a satire about the movie capital’s Golden Age, when Hollywood maintained a contradictory attitude towards its Jewish contingent.
The end result is ultimately unsatisfactory on all three levels. The three talents represented on stage—Selznick, Hecht and Fleming—are at times depicted as respected, creative auteurs, yet other times reduced to pathetically slapstick caricatures. It is painful to see Selznick flouncing around stage using a sing-song southern belle soprano. Because Hutchison uses the conceit that Hecht knows absolutely nothing about the book “Gone With The Wind,” highly improbable for someone as astute and sophisticated as Hecht, it’s embarrassing to see the playwright so unproductive and uncooperative, trying to escape at every opportunity. And while Fleming’s macho reputation is well-documented, did we really need to have that translate into a noisy trip to the bathroom?
The slapstick mentality of the first act doesn’t quite prepare one for the slightly more serious observations of the second, where conversations turn to the treatment of Jews in 1930’s Hollywood and to a particularly saccharine discussion of the importance of the audience. The particulars about the difficulties of movie-making are glossed over superficially and the opportunity to explore how the film of GWTW will depict African-Americans onscreen remains unfulfilled, except for an awkward sequence depicting how the director plans to film Scarlett slapping Prissy. All in all, the play feels terribly inadequate for whatever Hutchison was attempting to do, leaving one with an unpleasant taste in one’s mouth by the end of the evening.
That said, Garrett has his cast attempt to make the most of the evening in spite of the odd material. Kevin Elden embeds Selznick with the stature he deserves at the start of the play but is less successful as the character is required to descend into the depths of physical comedy and caricature. Allan Greenberg is more successful at creating a fully rounded character as Hecht, conveying the writer’s deep concern to maintaining his integrity, while carefully modulating his turn into the exhausted, harried “hack” he feels he’s becoming as the interminable days confined to Selznick’s office drag on.
Bill Mootos is consistent in portraying Fleming’s hyper-conventional masculinity that he maintains in a town full of all sorts of creative and temperament types, and which he sustains despite whatever pressure Selznick may apply. Denise Walker makes a few plaintive appearances as Miss Poppenguhl, Selznick’s much put upon secretary, although she does tend to overdo the exhaustion routine, since it has never been established that she has remained onsite for this 24/7 writing spree.
Scenic designer Eric D. Diaz, in his Playhouse on Park debut, creates perhaps the most comprehensive, detailed set I have seen so far on this stage. He has recreated an executive suite in all of its art deco glory, with detailed doors, tiled floors, and period appropriate furniture. Even the two pillars at audience edge have been completely covered in with the wall paper, wainscoting and other details of Selznick’s office. It was a treat to see every inch of stage space designed so meticulously.
Resident Costume Designer Erin Kacmarcik indeed met the challenge of dressing the three gentlemen in 30’s attire befitting their positions and stations in life, from Selznick’s elegant three piece suit to Fleming’s suggestive western garb and Hecht’s more informal and more proletariat togs.
I also sat in the theater wondering how much GWTW remains a cultural touch point for contemporary audiences. For many years, it was known as Hollywood’s most successfully popular film, noted for the national obsession over its casting, and enjoyed a reputation as the movie industry’s first genuine blockbuster. Today’s cultural references probably gear more toward “Titanic” or, say, “Avatar” or even to the horror films that for some reason capture teenager’s imagination. Many of the references in Hutchison’s play are funny because we know how the final film will turn out and because many of us are quite familiar with its plot. Many of us even await the resolution of Rhett Butler’s final line, which goes through several variations in the play. But it strikes me that fewer and fewer people nowadays take GWTW to heart as much as previous generations did.
There’s nothing wrong with Hutchison fictionalizing an actual occurrence in order to make some points or demonstrate some ironies or merely entertain. That he didn’t seem to have the confidence to fully commit one way or the other eventually detracts from the overall effort and keeps the evening from being fully rewarding.
For tickets, visit the Playhouse on Park website at www.PlayhouseOnPark.org.