at Actors Rep through Dec. 9
Sometimes even critics can be wrong. (Hard to imagine, I know, but true.) Browse review-snippets of *Moonlight and Magnolias,* a comic retelling of how *Gone With the Wind* was rewritten on deadline and at hyper-speed, and you’ll confront a lot of jabber about excessive silliness and slapped-on political content.
But the revelation about Ron Hutchinson’s comedy, in moving from page to stage, is how plausibly the arguments about racism and the purposes of art spring out of the Three Stooges routines and back-and-forth wisecracks. This is a comedy that offers something to chew on after the one-liners have melted away. Despite some unconvincing moments and flat spots, director Tralen Doler’s production at Actors Rep (through Dec. 9) wrings commentary about politics and power out of its cram-session comedy. There’s a reason that theaters all over the country have been producing *M&M* for the last couple of years: While his play isn’t profound, Hutchinson still offers satisfying repayment for two hours spent laughing at present antics while reliving the past and imagining what the future might hold.
A comedy about the creative process that requires just four actors and a unit set — of course artistic directors are going to go after this one. And because its producer-figure gives pep talks to his two colleagues, in terms of a well-known movie embedded in our cultural fabric, he’s giving pep talks to all of us out there in the dark. His message is to do work that we love, to do it well, to make sacrifices. That’s a message that audiences will appreciate and apply to their own lives even amid all their guffaws. The play’s running debates about politics — the racism and anti-Semitism of the 1930s (not exactly conquered today) and the creative process (yup, still a mystery) — retain their impact.
The plot’s simple: Producer David O. Selznick (Michael Weaver) locks two guys in a room for week so they can collectively rewrite the biggest movie of all time, that’s all. Selznick has stopped production on *Gone With the Wind,* and he’s hired director Victor Fleming (John Oswald) and screenwriter Ben Hecht (Patrick Treadway) to help him beat the clock by throwing together a new shooting script. They work five days straight, and much credit is due to ARt’s trio of actors for looking progressively disheveled. Treadway looks haggard from the start — and he’s got a times-five all-nighter in front of him just to get the *GWTW* script refashioned under the gun. With skeptical mouth twists, resigned shoulder slumps and shuffling, uncooperative feet, Treadway nicely understates Hecht’s reluctance to write schlock (and worse yet, apolitical schlock without a purpose). Stridency would’ve been too much in a wit-display full of men screaming at each other; Treadway limns his character in small and effective ways.
Hutchinson has written in a couple of red-faced showdowns between writer and director — conception and execution — and Oswald, at some points hunchbacked with vitriol, rages at Hecht the mere typist. But the surprise is how Oswald (who has specialized in portraying elderly men in a couple of productions each at Interplayers and at Actors Rep) delivers a spoof imitation of *GWTW*’s Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, the child who don’t know nuthin’ about birthin’ no babies.
Especially in the first act, though, this thing doesn’t run like the wind, not yet. The second act, fortunately, opens with a series of blackout scenes that ratchet up the laugh-o-meter. There are some needless pauses; with some of the historical references, the cast needs to decide whether to go for laughs (and what kind).
One plot device that Hutchinson uses to get Fleming and Hecht isolated in a conversation is ridiculous and hokey — but then so is much of Gone With the Wind. Still, there’s funny-stupid (the histrionic re-enactments, the slapping routine, the running banana jokes) and then there’s just stupid-stupid.
Some the problem lies with Weaver, though maybe that’s because the double-fussy wallop of “The Tuna Project” will still be familiar after just three months to regular theatergoers. There’s only so much hip-jiggling, floppy-wrist circling of the stage one can see before Scarlett O’Hara becomes less character than caricature. Granted, Weaver’s David O. Selznick is frantically trying to re-enact most of a four-hour movie so that Treadway, as screenwriter Ben Hecht, can cobble together some revised pages. But Weaver’s sometimes too campy for a man who feels so much responsibility — to his studio, to the movies in general.
There was a moment when Selznick first waxed eloquent about the movies during which Weaver didn’t seem to have turned the emotional corner from comic mugging to pep-talk sincerity. But then lights dim, music swells, Weaver pulls back a curtain … and the power of theater to persuade, to make us believe that illusion, right this moment, can be truer than mere facts, is maintained.
Costumer Lisa Caryl puts Weaver in a natty green suit that says, just as it should, Big Shot Producer. Set designer Renae Meredith’s sunburst doors use Art Deco flair to complement the room-full-of-powerful-men look (even if these particular power-mongers have bananas stuck in their mouths).
Writing a late-night review hurriedly after watching a frenetic production of *M&M* feels much like the struggles that Hutchinson’s three men go through in his play — sacrificing sleep just to get some words down on paper. One difference, though: I’m writing a small-city review that’s off the stands by next week. They were writing *Gone With the Flippin’ Wind.*
Critics cling to being “part of the process,” and yet some of them, I am persuaded, are actually fallible. Some of them displayed a knee-jerk anti-popularity response to one of America’s most frequently produced plays. So don’t believe the claims of superficiality about *M&M.* Hutchinson plays fast and loose with historical probabilities, but then so did Margaret Mitchell. The five-day rewrite is a myth, and conversations couldn’t have been as rapid-fire witty as this in any case. But frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn, because Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias — well presented by Actors Rep — is a comedy worth experiencing. It’ll make you smile, but it will also get you thinking about the sacrifices you’re willing to make in order to chase after your dreams. Tomorrow, after all, isn’t just another day; tomorrow is a chance to reshape your life.