Moonlight and Magnolias
CJSF’s A&E Correspondent Denise Mok commends the expert slapstick but mourns the abundant clichés in the Playhouse Theatre Company’s presentation of ‘Moonlight and Magnolias’ written by Ron Hutchinson, directed by John Cooper and starring Jay Brazeau, Richard Newman, Stephen E. Miller, and Dawn Petten.
Moonlight and Magnolias is a funny, campy take on the behind-the-scenes melodrama in the making of the mother-of-all melodramas, the Southern epic Gone With The Wind (GWTW). This play opens at the moment when filming GWTW stopped abruptly with the firing of the original director and no damn good script in sight. David O. Selznick (played admirably by Jay Brazeau), producer and soul behind GWTW, cajoles and seduces Ben Hecht (Richard Newman), famed script doctor and pal, into rewriting the GWTW script for him. Hecht has little choice: Selznick holds him captive in his office. The comedy and slapstick ensues when Selznick, Hecht, and new director Vic Fleming (Stephen E. Miller), act out and fight out each scene that they put on paper, locked in Selznick’s office for five days. The men gain a new respect for each other and the movie business that consume their hearts and souls.
This is an amusing and well executed play about artistic chaos, collaboration, and compromise. The juicy fast-hitting dialogue packs good punches. The script written by Ron Hutchison contains zingy one-liners, some offbeat but surprisingly good lines, and many allusions to classic Hollywood. He beautifully weaves together industry allusions and background material into the dialogue. The ripping dialogue brings us back to the fast-talking Depression-era comedies and to the studio system days, a bygone era. We witness the high histrionics of clashing egos, imaginative and good solid performances by the cast. The physical comedy sequences (such as the slap fights) are gems.
David O. Selznick (Jay Brazeau) is a fast-talking, wisecracking, and bald megalomanic movie producer. This character is admirably played by Brazeau. His overwhelming personality and chameleon emotions are skillfully projected. However, this character as scripted lacks the charm, boyishness, and vulnerability of the real Selznick. He resorts to mannerisms and well-timed physical humour (such as using his rotund body to imitate Scarlett’s feminine movements). His lines are delivered with gusto: with real relish he proclaims, “I can taste this movie.” His ‘seizure moment’ when he goes into a frozen stupor, is unbelievable and strange.
I was touched by the conscientious Ben Hecht (Richard Newman), a sensitive interpretation with the full pathos and inferiority complex of the writer and Jewish personality. Hecht is the moral voice of the play.
Indeed Vic Fleming (Stephen E. Miller) steals the show, although he physically resembles more Mickey Rooney in National Velvet (with his jodpurs, beret, and horsewhip) than the 6 ft. 3 ultra-chauvinistic original. This costume choice in itself may be a poke at classic Hollywood. Miller plays Fleming a bit hammy (beating the air with his fists like an Irish prizefighter – something that is unlikely the manly and disciplined Fleming would do) at the beginning, but grandly steals our sympathies and our hearts by the end. His wisecracking and good-natured presence enlightens the production.
Secretary Miss Poppenghul (Dawn Petten) is endearing and delightful as the loyal secretary. She steals the scene at the end when her silhouette appears against the rosy dawn…holding a banana (which we know will be translated into Scarlett’s epiphany moment in the film version). This is a campy moment but spectacular.
One feels at times that the trio is a bunch of slap-happy actors acting out frustration and cynicism (like the three stooges, only better!). They rely on gimmicks for laughs, such as employing the lampshade hat to elicit comic effect, and the ‘birthin babies’ episode with the grown men acting out Melanie’s labour scene in GWTW. These over-the-top histrionics of three grown men will either excite you or appall you.
While I like the way the three egos (Selznick, Hecht, Fleming) always play off one another – a volcanic eruption of masculine egos in this figurative ménage-a-trois—there is no pathos or real sympathy for these characters because the situation seems too superficial for us to really care about. Selznick might lose his shirt, but his megalomania keeps us at an awed distance.
Like the Tara theme music that gushes at pivotal moments in the play, the Hollywood references gush out a-mile-a-minute. While this brings audiences back in time to that moment in movie history, the references may mystify some modern audiences. The lighting is ordinary and the GWTW marquee set in lights at the end is especially tacky.
Also there is an attempt to deal with too many thought-provoking issues at once (such as beating a black girl, the legacy of prejudice against Jews, the race question in America, Selznick’s father complex, nostalgia for a bygone era, etc.) The play also attacks Hitler, dictatorship, and the cynicism of the film industry, summarized nicely as the ‘gold-lined sewer’ feeding the purses of moguls like Selznick. This adds a tinge of moral conscience to the play and showcases the high-minded idealism of Selznick. The fear of losing it all and the fragility of achievement and power have relevance in contemporary zeitgeist. Moviemaking with idealism and heart even in a cynical industry is what Hecht teaches Selznick, while Selznick reinforces Hecht that there’s still a moviemaker who cares about real art for real people. The sad thing is that these more serious issues are only ruffled but never dealt with to a decent depth within the limit of this 1 hour 50 minutes play.
Surprised me moment
The ‘Hitting Prissy’ scene got a strange reaction from the audience: laughter (or perhaps ‘uncomfortable glee’?). Either people were uncomfortable with this political point and turned to laughter for refuge, or they were bringing their 21st century heads into this argument (like Prissy didn’t deserve such consideration) and so would think that anything to do with Prissy was a joke.