Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Moonlight and Magnolias: The week the cameras stopped rolling on the set of
Gone with the Wind

Rob Riley, William Dick (seated)
and Ron Orbach

If you love the arts and entertainment, it's hard to resist the appeal of a backstage story. When the story involves the making of the most popular movie of all time, it may be impossible not to enjoy the tale. Moonlight and Magnolias, currently in its world premiere engagement at the Goodman, sneaks us into the office of legendary producer David O. Selznick during a week when his production of Gone with the Wind is in deep trouble. George Cukor has been fired as director and the umpteenth draft of a script has proven to be unworkable. Selznick has suspended shooting and the entire cast and crew are being paid $50,000 a day while he figures out what to do next. Early on a Monday morning in February 1939, Selznick meets with the screenwriter Ben Hecht to offer him $15,000 for a complete rewrite of Sidney Howard's screenplay. The main problem is, Hecht hasn't read the novel, isn't impressed with Selznick's synopsis of it and thinks the picture's bound to be a turkey. Selznick pulls the director Victor Fleming off the soon-to-wrap Wizard of Oz and sequesters the director and writer with himself in his office, with bananas and peanuts their only sustenance, to knock out a workable screenplay by the end of the week.

Selznick (Ron Orbach, of Broadway's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Dance of the Vampires and Never Gonna Dance) and Fleming (Rob Riley) play all the characters of GWTW while Hecht (William Dick) types, occasionally interrupted by phone calls from the likes of Vivien Leigh, Louis B. Mayer, Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and Ed Sullivan. Selznick is a somewhat more sincere but no less manic version of Max Bialystock (Orbach was The Producers' first Franz Liebkind, playing the role briefly during the show's Chicago pre-Broadway tryout), Fleming is a "man's man" director mostly of action films (i.e. Captains Courageous ) and Hecht a cynical yet idealistic ex-journalist deeply committed to Jewish causes.

This combination of solid formulas - a behind-the-scenes show business story together with the stage convention of conflicting personality types confined to a small space - as well as the current vogue of one-man (in this case two-man) readings of campy classics, provides a fun evening. If you can picture the dashing, macho Victor Fleming on the floor as Melanie giving birth while the overweight Selznick plays Scarlett, you get the idea. Orbach and Riley do a masterful job with their physical comedy. William Dick as Hecht has to spend most of this time at the typewriter, resigned to his job and trying to remain emotionally detached, but even so, he seems a bit wooden at times. Mary Seibel rounds out the four-person cast as Selznick's long-suffering secretary Miss Poppenguhl and finds more ways to read the line "Yes, Mr. Selznick" than one would think to be humanly possible.

The movie business is grist for a lot of laughs as well, even though some of the subject matter is familiar. During a debate over the relative importance of writing versus direction in making a film, Selznick settles the matter by explaining that he pays the writer to write what he wants him to write and the director to direct what he wants him to direct. "That's collaboration," he tells them. The screenplay's completion is delayed by Hecht's initial refusal to retype the novel's closing line "tomorrow is another day," but by the time the three finish the screenplay, Selznick is confident it will work. Hecht thinks it'll be a bomb that will tarnish their careers and declines screenwriter credit. Fleming elects to take an upfront salary instead of a share of the profits.

Seeing Fleming and Hecht's inability to predict the success of their picture gives one pause before guessing how Moonlight and Magnolias might do in the future, but with some work I think it could be successful. It seems there's opportunity to build more fully rounded characters out of the three. Selznick, alternately a megalomaniac, passionate filmmaker and insecure nebbish, needs some glue to pull all these traits together into a more coherent whole. There's probably a bit more fun to be had with the character of Fleming, though I liked the restraint in keeping him from becoming an all-out buffoon, (a la Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show ). The character of Hecht needs more work. Playwright Hutchinson, director Steven Robman and actor Dick fail to land on a character. Part sellout, part idealist, Hecht doesn't quite jell into a person or even a fully realized comic character. There's also trouble with a bit of "dramatic relief" in act two, in which Hecht the activist forces Selznick to think about the reluctance of America to accept its Jews, even a successful powerful one like Selznick, as a real "American." It seems to come out of nowhere just to give us a little breather from the mania on stage. Another problem is that, since we know how the story ends, the writing has to create some other tension that can be resolved. A director like Jerry Zaks could probably better define the characters, squeeze more laughs out of the piece and make it into a more satisfying evening.

In its current form, the NYC critics would probably not be kind to it, but Moonlight and Magnolias seems to have potential to become a strong vehicle for the right performers. Considering the appeal of the subject matter and its similarities to another show about another producer, it's certainly a highly marketable one. But for now the Goodman and the creative team can enjoy a crowd-pleasing hit and think the show's future tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.

Moonlight and Magnolias runs through June 13th at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. Performances are Tuesday through Sundays. For ticket information, call 312-443-3800 or visit

Photo: Liz Lauren

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area

-- John Olson

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