JET Review: Moonlight and Magnolias

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A great night of theater for JET audiences.

Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s season opener, Moonlight and Magnolias, takes us behind the scenes of the classic film Gone with the Wind, where the characters who created the epic blockbuster are as fascinating as those depicted on screen.

The 2005 Off-Broadway hit play, written by Ron Hutchinson and directed by JET Managing Director Christopher Bremer, is an intriguing and often hilarious look at how Margaret Mitchell’s 1,037-page Civil War saga became one of the most successful movies ever made, winning 10 Academy Awards when it premiered in 1939.

The play, which is based on true events, takes place over the course of five days during which three Hollywood legends — producer David O. Selznick (Wayne David Parker), screenwriter Ben Hecht (Joel Mitchell) and director Victor Fleming (Glen Allen Pruett) — revised the Sidney Howard GWTW screenplay in a locked room after Selznick fired original director George Cukor and suspended filming three weeks into production.

When the play opens, Fleming, in the midst of directing The Wizard of Oz, and Hecht, who was writing the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus, are called in to salvage the troubled film. Selznick explains the rules: No one leaves the room until the screenplay is finished, and the only food allowed is bananas and peanuts. When Selznick and Fleming learn that Hecht has never read Mitchell’s novel, they agree to act out each scene while Hecht pounds away at his typewriter.

This is where the real fun begins. Parker and Pruett are hilarious as they take turns playing the roles of Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, Melanie, and Prissy the maid, et al. Hecht is contemptuous of the whole project and makes no attempt to hide his disdain, insisting that “no Civil War movie ever made a dime.”

The action crosses over into very funny slapstick when the men re-enact the scene where Scarlett O’Hara slaps the recalcitrant Prissy for dawdling while Melanie is giving birth.

The acting and direction are superb. Mitchell does justice to the complicated persona of Hecht, who was not only the acclaimed screenwriter of such films as Scarface and The Front Page (and, later, Some Like it Hot) but a noted director, producer, journalist, playwright, novelist, civil rights activist and Zionist, who tries to convince Selznick of his responsibility to his fellow Jews.

Parker brings to life the driven, bordering-on-manic Selznick, complete with his renowned ego and Type A+ behavior. Pruett portrays Fleming as the hard-driving director who has no patience for what he calls Hecht’s “Chicago newspaperman” ethics when the writer protests the film’s portrayal of slavery.

As the days wear on, the battles ensue. By the beginning of Act Two, the men are exhausted and disheveled right down to their sweat-stained T-shirts, and the stage is strewn with peanut shells and crumpled pages torn from Hecht’s typewriter by the perfectionistic Selznick.

The interaction between the men is delightfully counteracted by Mary Wright Bremer, who plays Miss Poppenghul, Selznick’s efficient and long-suffering secretary. In a wonderful performance, she responds to her boss’ constant and often unreasonable commands with a pleasant “Yes, Mr. Selznick,” even as her prim-and-proper demeanor disintegrates along with the others.

The set, designed by Adam Crinson, is a replica of Selznick’s studio office, which goes from order to chaos during the five-day writing ordeal. Props by Diane Ulseth and costumes by Christa Koerner add to the authenticity. The production is rounded out by Scott Ross’ lighting and Matthew Lira’s sound design, which includes the familiar roar of the MGM lion and background music from both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

Allow time to peruse the comprehensive Gone with the Wind memorabilia exhibit by local collector Kathleen Marcaccio.

Moonlight and Magnolias runs through Oct. 7 at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre in the JCC in West Bloomfield. (248) 788-2900; www.jettheatre.org.

By Ronelle Grier, Contributing Writer

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