Moonlight and Magolias – Very Bad Bad Book
Do you know how many people it takes to make a good movie? About as many as it takes to make a bad one. Twilight, 50 Shades of Gray, Gone With the Wind. All bad books turned into bad movies (by some standards, anyway) and none of them by stupid people. In fact, I bet that ninety percent of the suits that sat around the table discussing whether a four-hundred year old vampire would go after a teenage girl’s menstrual fluid were pretty fucking educated. Great money, not necessarily great art. Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias takes place over five grueling days in 1939 when three guys locked in David O. Selznick’s (Thom Eric Sinn) office managed to kick off the epic, beautiful, unparalleled, genre changing, state-of-the-art, racist piece of cinematic shit that is Gone With the Wind (the Movie!). Besides Selznick, that would be director Victor Fleming (Tony Colavito) and writer Ben Hecht (David Shoemaker), not to mention poor, long-suffering secretary Miss Poppenghul (Rachel Roth), who tends to their every peanut and banana wish. Hutchinson is a liiiiittle more starry-eyed about this creation than I am. There is something in the undercurrent of Antisemitism that runs through the play, yes. In the way that Selznick and Hecht, two Jewish guys, chewed up and spat out the antebellum South as an American fable to the very same country that othered and would even have despised them if they weren’t the “right” kind of Jews. I don’t think, though, that this theme, even as heavy-handed as it sometimes gets, is enough to carry. A lot of the show (especially the monologues) is pretty repetitive and there just isn’t much “there” there, you know? TBH, it would probably have bored the pants off me if not for the fact that the cast is fucking spectacular and the direction from Michael Byrne Zemarel (who is a favorite around the Oracle) is again really right on. Zemeral’s tone on this material is the just the slightest bit sarcastic, which speaks to me – watch, especially, the way he works with Hecht’s lines and allows Shoemaker to get actually pointed and, at times, vicious. And the sound. They sound right, dead on, like they’re talking from a 1930s movie, fast and clipped and deliciously Mid-Atlantic, especially Roth. Everything is a little big, a little outside the lines, a little cartoonish, just enough to tell you that, you know, it’s just a fucking movie here, yeah, it’s Gone With the Wind, but they didn’t cure cancer, for Christ’s sake. I think that Zemeral’s refusal to genuflect in front of these historical giants is part of the reason that the characters come off as true as they do. The other is in the talent of the actors. It honestly wouldn’t have been more believable if Selznick, Hecht and Fleming had risen from the goddamned grave and performed in front of me. Sinn, an actor who always seems as if he’s wearing a fedora even in the rare times on stage that he isn’t, plays Selznick as a man who is on the constant verge of a heart attack. He’s sweating bullets over Broadway midwifing this fucking thing, but Sinn doesn’t succumb to the temptation to push it too far. He’s the boss, always, and, no matter many clots he may throw during the process, the boss always gets his way. We know that Shoemaker’s Hecht is going to be a troublemaker the minute he spits out “Loyal slaves?”. He’s saddled with some of the more unrealistic portions of the dialogue (I would like to think that Hecht objected to the abuse of the slave Prissy, but I kind of doubt he took that kind of stand) but he doesn’t come off forced. The performance is measured. There’s bluff and bravado yes, but there’s also frustration and barely concealed anger at performing like a monkey for a system that hates him. Colavito’s Fleming is less nuanced by his nature but I quite liked his cowboyish cock-swinging and the gruff way he really digs into the lines (watch for “cast iron ass”). He’s exactly the guy who made a movie called Test Pilot. And Roth is cute as a button but not cute-sy. Her delivery is priceless and a moment near the end, where she turns from tough-as-nails professional woman to fawning Wind groupie, really tells you something about how this movie came to occupy the status it has. The production is cocooned in (mostly) beautiful technical design, which also helps. The palette is expensive, inviting, and the set and props (Tony Colavito and Michael Zemarel) gorge, especially that sweet bar cart. Costumes (Suzanne Pratt) look nice, polished, and spot-on. Sound, also by Zemarel, is a little obvious, what with “Tara’s Theme” coming heavily into play, but one could hardly call that his fault. I initially thought that the lighting (Al Ramer) was bizarre, dark and harsh at the same time, until a dimmer appeared to suddenly work mid-show, so I’m not too sure what else to say about that. Oh, and I have to hand it to Larry Malkus: I usually just hate fight choreography on the small stage, but his slapslappy moment was a giggle.
THE BOTTOM LINE: I may not be the biggest fan of the material but Moonlight and Magnolias is well and truly done. This is how the sausage got made, and 1930s Hollywood sausage probably smelled like cigarettes and sounded like homophobic epithets. Impeccable performances and well above-average direction saved the day for me here. Good work.
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