Moonlight and Magnolias
Also see Richard's review of Clybourne Park
And in some ways, you could say the same thing about playwright Ron Hutchinson: that he just set out to write "another backstage comedy," using Hollywood and Gone With The Wind as convenient backdrops. But then, in this case, three fine actors and one very fine director just happened to "take over" his show.
Jason Cannon is that director, and that line about bodice-rippers and ambitious heroines comes to us from the usually daffy Dave Cooperstein, who turns in a very nicely modulated performance as David O. Selznick, son-in-law to the great Louis B. Mayer. It's still bound to turn into the Marx Brothers, and even the Three Stooges, from time to timebut there's something just right about all the performances that redeems this piece-work play from the graveyard of near hits. You still need a nodding familiarity with Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh, and it doesn't hurt if you have at least some minor enthusiasm for their three-hour-and-forty-four-minute Civil War epic. But if you've got that to start with, well, it's a fun little show.
Because, for better or worse, the play still rises or falls on whether or not you were ever awe-struck by the 1939 movie, as Moonlight and Magnolias is totally devoted to knocking the whole mess off its pedestal from beginning to end. Dean Christopher plays the legendary writer Ben Hecht, brought in to synthesize dozens of older treatments, and tasked with cutting down an incredibly long first draft by another writerstarting from page one, in just five days.
And here Mr. Christopher has the thankless task of being the one level-headed member of a trio of men, including Mr. Cooperstein and the always delightful Kent Coffel as director Victor Fleming. (Seven or eight years ago, I called Mr. Coffel 'the most under-rated actor in St. Louis,' but now that he's getting regular starring roles, I'll just have to say he's 'the formerly most under-rated actor in St. Louis.')
The play founders here and there, as when Selznick laments the travails of running a prestigious movie studio, and the compromises he must make as a top-ranked Hollywood mogul, but there are enough delicious little moments scattered throughout, thanks to the actors and even Mr. Hutchinson's script, that Moonlight and Magnolias actually becomes magical in spite of its lesser gimmicks, involving peanuts and bananas, and a labored rendition of Olivia de Havilland's labor pains, on the road back to Tara. But there are plenty of bitchy comments, and all the little twists and turns work just fine, especially in the first act.
Maggie Murphy is delightful as Selznick's secretary, and she falls neatly into place to give us the show's biggest "wow" moment near the end. Otherwise, thank goodness for Mr. Coffel and Mr. Cooperstein, whose sole ambition is to drive poor Mr. Christopher (as Hecht) to complete and utter distraction.
Strongly recommended for Gone With the Wind fans, and for anybody with writing ambitions. Through November 11, 2012, at Chesterfield Mall, second floor, just outside the Sears store, near the south end of the mall. For more information call (636) 220-7012 or visit them online at www.dramaticlicenseproductions.org.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the US.