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Moonlight and Magnolias
Adobe Theatre

Moonlight and Magnolias
Kenneth Bennington, Mark Underwood and Thom Hinks
Mainstream audiences love a glittering behind-the-scenes Hollywood story, especially from the glamorous late thirties. Ron Hutchinson's comedy Moonlight and Magnolias strips the fourth wall off the "inner sanctum" of movie icons to reveal an anguished rewriting of "Gone With the Wind."

As the play opens, Producer David O. Selznick has the fired previous writers and hired famous script writer Ben Hecht to create a miracle in five days, even though Hecht has only read the first page of Margaret Mitchell's best-selling novel familiar to most moviegoers in 1939. To demonstrate his disgust and desperation, Selznick drops scripts from other writers who failed him, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, with a resounding thud.

Selznick has also fired George Cukor and dragged Victor Fleming away from directing The Wizard of Oz in its final weeks of shooting to resuscitate his dying project. Fleming, under contract to the studio, fears being shoved back to his old job as chauffeur.

Hutchinson creates a comic acceleration by having Selznick hold both writer and director captive, feeding them his version of brain food: peanuts and bananas. As Selznick acts out "fiddle dee dee" Scarlet scenes, Fleming plays Melanie giving birth so that Hecht can write his script.

Folks in the matinee audience I joined, mostly born in the 20s and 30s, can remember those glittering "specks of light rolling on a time machine" in Hollywood's glory days. Predictably, they loved the drag show of male actors vamping it up as femme fatales.

The highpoint of slapstick play-acting involves all three male characters slapping one other like the Three Stooges to get Scarlet's slap of Prissy in the Melanie birthing scene just right. The low comedy physical action works as a narrative device to transform the three combatants into collaborators.

Through Hecht, a character with a conscience about contemporary world-wide social justice struggles, the play introduces race, class and anti-Semitic restrictions that Hollywood prefers to gloss over. "Make America look at its ugly face in the mirror."

The comic and serious plots are yoked together somewhat awkwardly in the script, but having Hecht continue to harp on the reality of slavery during the Civil War and the persecution of Jews in 1939 gives a sobering context to the slapstick comedy.

The script paints Selznick as a shallow opportunist who married the boss's daughter and rides his chariot toward big bucks by pandering to the masses. He wails, "My father-in-law [the legendary Louis B. Mayer] is waiting for me to fail." It's Tinseltown itself that takes center stage as the whore with a heart of gold.

Wynn Rowell has come from Los Angeles with a string of film, theater and scriptwriting credits to direct his first play in the land of enchantment at The Adobe Theatre on the far northwest edge of Albuquerque. He credits his actors and serendipity: they've all played in similar shows. Indeed, the masterful director has his actors working together like a seasoned ensemble, especially in the comic bits.

Handsome young leading man Mark Underwood plays an understated David O. Selznick. He exhibits the vulnerable son-in-law more than the wheeler dealer power broker, but he definitely looks the part. He recently starred as Richard Lionheart in The Lion in Winter at the Adobe.

Actor, singer, dancer and director Kenneth Bennington plays the brash accidental director Victor Fleming vacillating between resentment for being dropped into what he imagines will be a second-rate melodrama, and terror of being exiled from the sparkle. His nimble body flounces about from comatose to fury in a flash. Bennington directed The Lion in Winter earlier this year and has performed in many shows locally.

Thom Hinks commands the stage as the self-aware former newspaperman from Chicago, Ben Hecht. The role is written to be curmudgeonly and abrasive, and Hinks explodes with self-righteous energy every time he speaks, even and especially when, as Selznick accuses, he "sees everything through a six-pointed star." He makes his Albuquerque debut with this performance, but he's been active in theatre for 50 years in Michigan.

Virginia Chavez plays the dutiful but subtly judgmental secretary Miss Poppenghul with winning dynamism and glamour. She has performed in several local theatres: The Water Engine at the Explora Theater, The Miracle on 34th Street at Albuquerque Little Theater, and Neil Simon's Chapter Two at Adobe.

Director Rowell deserves special praise for his set design. The audience in the intimate performing space can easily crouch into the claustrophobia of the situation, smell overripe bananas, feel the crunch of peanut shells, empathize with the characters, and enter the verisimilitude of the scene, thanks to the design and scenic artist Barbara Bock.

Moonlight and Magnolias premiered in 2004 at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago and played at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2005. Since then, it's been packing audiences in at regional theaters around the country.

Mark Underwood has created and designed a soundtrack and sound effects that waft the audience back to 1939.

Moonlight and Magnolias is running at the Adobe Theatre, 9813 Fourth Street NW, Albuquerque, through August 1, 2010, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. $14 General Admission, $12 Seniors or Students, group rates available. For reservations, call 505-898-9222.


Photo: Ossy Werner

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