Three weeks into the production of Gone With the Wind, producer David O. Selznick assembled in his office writer Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming to completely rewrite the script. What might have happened?
That's the clever and ripe premise devised by playwright Ron Hutchison for Moonlight & Magnolias. Forward Theater Company's production opened Friday in Overture Center's Playhouse.
The screenplay has already gone through countless revisions, and Selznick has halted production. The pressure is enormous. Margaret Mitchell's Civil War novel is hugely popular, and Selznick's father-in-law, studio head Louis B. Mayer, is looking over his shoulder. Selznick essentially holds the other men hostage in his office for five days. His secretary, Miss Poppenghul, is at the ready to bring in the only staples they are allowed, bananas and peanuts.
The play is largely a comedy, with splashes of broad slapstick. (Accent on the slap: there is some silly and satisfying Three Stoogesque business.) But there are also stretches of social commentary, as the men, and the audience, look at the realities of slavery and the Civil War -- as well as the anti-Semitism and the mounting threat of fascism at the time the movie was produced.
The transitions between these two very different tones aren't always graceful. This is more a problem with the play than with the snappy and smart direction by Jennifer Uphoff Gray.
The cast is small but mighty. As David O. Selznick, Mark Ulrich possesses an elastic physicality, and it's put to ample use. He essentially acts out the novel for his friend Hecht, who hasn't read it yet. Ulrich flits at breakneck speed between the roles of the main characters, and his Scarlett O'Hara is a joy to behold. Ulrich is also a master salesman, a hostage negotiator and a motivator. You can imagine Selznick being all of those.
Michael Herold plays Ben Hecht and does the heavy lifting in terms of reminding his colleagues, and us, about the unsavory aspects of the book. Herold's role isn't as fun or flashy as the others', but he brings a world-weary dignity, and his prickly dynamic with director Fleming adds heft to the evening.
Jim Buske, as Victor Fleming, has the laconic, hangdog appeal of a Tom Poston, and he really shines as he complains about the compromises directors are forced to make. He admits to slapping Judy Garland (just once), and his descent into sleep-deprived stupor is truly funny.
Celia A. Klehr is Selznick's unflappable secretary, and even though her lines are mostly in the vein of "Yes, Mr. Selznick," and "No, Mr. Selznick," she fleshes out this character and lets us know that she is smart, capable, a force to be reckoned with.
There are many laugh-out-loud moments. One is when the men try to figure out how to handle an iconic scene in which Scarlett, confronted with the stress of delivering Melanie's baby, slaps Prissy the slave for dawdling. This is a time when the push-pull of comedy and social commentary works. It's very funny when Buske, as Melanie, lies on the floor, legs akimbo, as Ulrich, channeling Scarlett, urges him to push, while Herold types away. Things get funnier as the men take turns playing Prissy and Scarlett, trying to get the slap just right and ultimately descending into a tightly choreographed slapstick battle.
Between the laughs and the lecturing, there are quiet moments that ring true, particularly when Selznick ponders the magic of movies. Really, that is what the play is about, the transformative experience of cinema. Movie fans, particularly those with a soft spot for Gone With the Wind, will certainly appreciate the in-the-know asides about the cast and that era of Hollywood.
The marvelous set is by Sasha Augustine. Oh, the gorgeous curves and angles of 1939! Augustine has lovingly and accurately captured the period in the desk and bar of Selznick's office: the fabric of the sofa, the rugs, the warm glow of the burl wood wall coverings, the perfect placement of exactly the art you'd expect a producer to hang on those walls.
The care, time and money spent on the show are evident. This is revealed in elements people don't always pay attention to, like John Salutz's intelligent sound design, or the way the fun spills over into scene changes, as the exhausted actors remain draped over the furniture.
Or this: Uphoff Grey wittily handles a scene in which Selznick quickly flips through the screenplay before setting Fleming and Hecht free. He rattles off the key scenes in checklist style, and Krehl, with an economy of movement, her shape outlined in black against a dramatically lit window, acts out the drama as it rapidly unfolds.