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Marx Brothers redux: Moonlight and Magnolias.

Three Men in a Room

By James Yeara

Moonlight and Magnolias

By 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.


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