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Douglas Sills, David Rasche, and Matthew Arkin in
Moonlight and Magnolias
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Locked in a room for five days with nothing to eat but bananas and peanuts, three men supposedly crafted the screenplay to what is widely considered one of the finest films of all time. Inspired by actual events, Ron Hutchinson's hilarious new comedy Moonlight and Magnolias tells the behind-the-scenes story of Gone With the Wind as seen through the eyes of producer David O. Selznick (Douglas Sills), director Victor Fleming (David Rasche), and writer Ben Hecht (Matthew Arkin).

As the play opens, Selznick has fired original Gone With the Wind director George Cukor and stopped production of the film, costing himself $50,000 a day. He's brought in Hecht to rewrite the screenplay, showing him the various existent scripts by such authors as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sidney Howard. Selznick insists that he doesn't need the greatest writer in the world for this task: "What I need is the greatest re-writer," he says. That's Hecht, who agrees to devote five days of his time to the project. Selznick grabs the opportunity, pulls Fleming off the set of The Wizard of Oz, and sequesters the three of them in his office for the duration. Believing bananas and peanuts to be "brain food," that's all he orders to keep the men's creative juices flowing.

A major drawback to the plan is that Hecht has never read the source novel by Margaret Mitchell. This leads to one of the funnier conceits of the play: that, in order to bring Hecht up to speed, Selznick and Fleming must act out the story for him. Sills is outrageously entertaining as Selznick playing Scarlett O'Hara. Rasche, whose Fleming is normally gruff and masculine, ends up playing such parts as Melanie in the childbirth scene and the black maid Prissy. The latter role is rendered with a stereotypical accent that's not politically correct by any stretch of the imagination but escapes offensiveness because it's so over-the-top.

For all the madcap antics within the play, it raises some weighty issues in regard to race and ethnicity. Hecht has serious problems with the way that the slaves are depicted in the story and is particularly horrified by the slap that Scarlett gives Prissy when she finds out that the maid was lying and doesn't really know how to help deliver Melanie's baby. Hecht asks Selznick, "Don't you have a responsibility here?" He goes so far as to try writing for Prissy a passionate -- and, in the context of the play, hilarious -- speech proclaiming her independence. Needless to say, that idea is shot down, but the debate surrounding the construction of this movie scene is fascinating. Whether or not it's historically accurate is a separate question, but it's nice to think that the creators of the film thought through issues such as these.

Since the play is set in 1939, prior to U.S. involvement in World War II, the shadow of Nazi Germany looms in the background and is given plenty of play in Hutchinson's treatment. The playwright has Hecht constantly bring up both his own and Selznick's Jewish identity. Despite Selznick's many successes and the power he possessed in Hollywood, the producer was thought of as a Jew first and not really an American at all -- a point driven home by Hecht at a crucial juncture in the play through the placement of a few select phone calls. These more dramatic scenes complement the comedy and help to flesh out the characters.

Director Lynne Meadow keeps the action moving at a good clip, and the actors are nearly always believable despite the farcical situations in which they find themselves. Sills strikes just the right balance between charm and high-energy egomania in his portrayal of Selznick. Arkin's Hecht, in contrast, is more laid-back but no less passionate in his ideas and beliefs. While the Fleming character is not quite as well written as the other two, Rasche does a fine job with it. Rounding out the cast is Margo Skinner as Selznick's secretary, Miss Poppenghul. While we only see her for a few moments at a time, her comic mannerisms make an indelible impression.

Moonlight and Magnolias is sure to appeal to fans of Gone With the Wind as it offers a glimpse into what might have happened during those five days of furious writing and rewriting. But it's also a smart and extremely funny comedy that can be appreciated by those who have less familiarity with the film. Hutchinson, who has worked extensively in Hollywood and has rewritten many a screenplay himself, has brought a humorous appreciation of his profession into the crafting of this play, and it pays off handsomely.

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