Brothers redux: Moonlight and Magnolias.
Men in a Room
Ron Hutchinson, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill
Capital Repertory Theatre, through Sept. 30.
Early in Capital Repertory Theatre’s production of Moonlight
and Magnolias, Miss Popenghul (Mary Ann Conk), pronounced
“pop and go,” steps precisely into David O. Selznick’s (Brian
Wallace) pristine art deco office (the perfect 1930s movie-mogul
domain, by set designer Roman Tatarowicz), her swiveling hips
packed into her maroon dress like two quarts of tutti frutti
ice cream. With impeccable timing, the secretary answers a
series of Selznick’s questions with the same response: “Yes,
Mr. Selznick.” Thanks to Conk’s lively comedic characterizations,
the responses convey far more than a simple affirmation to
her high-driving boss’ queries. Conk’s varied deliveries and
exact expressions run a gamut of emotions and elicit the first
of many laughs in the comedy, tautly directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill.
Conk is like a mature Lucille Ball, an experienced comedienne
who doesn’t explode as much as she morphs.
Conk’s “pop and go” secretary acts as a frame for Moonlight
and Magnolias, Ron Hutchinson’s popular 2004 play about
the creation of the classic 1939 movie Gone With the Wind.
Hutchinson’s play is based on a historical incident: Selznick
fired the original director of GWTW, shut down production
for five days, hired Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben
Hecht (David Deblinger), and took soon-to-be-Academy Award-winning
director Victor Fleming (Robert Krakovski) off the almost
completed The Wizard of Oz. The three set out to “fix”
the troubled screenplay for GWTW based on the fantastically
popular novel. They succeeded.
It’s how they succeeded that makes the play funny and fascinating.
Hutchinson’s conceit is that Selznick locks himself, the director,
and the screenwriter in his office, the three of them living
on Selznick’s “brain food” of peanuts and bananas, sleeping,
fighting, pleading, arguing, and acting out GWTW until
the five days are up and the screen treatment is done. Moonlight
and Magnolias is filled with commentary about the creative
process and the making of movies that remain relevant today,
as well as insights into racism, prejudice, and social re
sponsibility that are also (sadly) as true today as they were
in 1939. Hecht constantly reminds Selznick that he will always
be viewed as an outsider in Hollywood—that he will always
be seen as a Jew, not an American. Selznick yells at Hecht,
“You want to see everything through a six-pointed star, go
ahead. . . . I can’t deal with the race question right now.”
Hecht’s smart response sums up the issue: “If you can’t deal
with race in Gone With the Wind, when can you?”
But the serious themes in Moonlight and Magnolias are
subsumed in the comic routines of the three men locked for
five days in a single room. The year, the physical lazzi,
and Selznick’s art deco office could have sprung out of Duck
Soup; all bring to mind the Marx Brothers, who are referenced
repeatedly in the play. Hecht contributed to the screenplay
for the 1939 Marx Brothers’ film At the Circus, and,
as cast here, Selznick, Hecht, and Fleming look like Groucho,
Chico, and Zeppo. If the comic business of flinging peanuts
and banana peels feels contained, it’s due to the firm hand
and precise direction of Mancinelli-Cahill, who re strains
the energy and exuberance often found in the Marx Brothers’
improvised glee. The zaniness peeks out, but remains firmly
controlled. The laughter is loud, frequent, and full during
the scenes when the three men work out the slapping of Prissy
and Melody birthing her baby—Krakovski is particularly funny
playing both Melody and Prissy. And, at the play’s end, Miss
Poppenghul silently acts out the film like a red-haired Harpo
as Selznick recaps their just-completed treatment of Gone
With the Wind. Conk supplies a series of “gookies” (Harpo’s
term for his exaggerated faces) that would have made Harpo
proud, and gets the play’s last series of fitting laughs.
Moonlight and Magnolias is tailor-made for fans of
Gone With the Wind, folks who like to laugh, and aficionados
of refined comedic acting.