Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Moonlight and Magnolias is a Hoot

Also see Richard's reviews of Equus, Pardon My English and Chicago

Tom Beckett, Peter Van Norden and John Procaccino
Imagine three of Hollywood's greatest icons, producer David O. Selznick, famed script writer Ben Hecht and legendary film director Victor Fleming, locked up in the producer's office for five days and five nights living on nothing but bananas and peanuts, trying to write for the umpteenth time a script for Gone With the Wind. Moonlight and Magnolias is a very slashing satire on the inner workings of three ego-driven men and the frenzied penning of the screenplay. Why only bananas and peanuts? Because the great David O. Selznick declares it a brain food.

San Jose Repertory Theatre is launching its 2006-2007 season with the hilarious Moonlight and Magnolias, written by Ron Hutchinson and directed by Timothy Near. The Chicago Sun-Times declared it "a hyperventilating slapstick comedy" and Howard Kissel of the Daily News said "Frankly, my dear, this is one funny play." The audience is taken into the inner sanctum of the famous producer's office in 1939 in this two-hour ten minute two-act production. We see a clash of titanic egos that is both hilarious and entertaining.

Moonlight and Magnolias is not all comedy. There is a serious side to this farce, which is also about the hidden prejudice of Jews in Los Angeles during 1939. Ben Hecht tells how Jews cannot live in certain neighborhoods like Bel Air or cannot join the Los Angeles Country Club.

Most of the fun is in the "hidden" stories that the three titans tell about Hollywood. Hecht has only read the first page of the massive novel. At the beginning of the play, he keeps repeating to Selznick, "I have never read the book." However, the producer is determined Hecht can come up with a new script since he is the best screenplay writer in Hollywood.

George Cukor has been ousted by the homophobic Clark Gable (there was always a Hollywood rumor about an awkward incident between Cukor and Gable in an MGM men's room during the early '30s), so Selznick has just yanked Victor Fleming from directing The Wizard of Oz. The director is relieved from helming the MGM musical since he will not have to deal with "160 Munchkins dead drunk and fornicating."

Selznick is in trouble as he has put up an incredible amount of his and MGM's money to make this epic. The Atlanta set has been burned, the cast is on board, but still there is not a complete script. The movie has been on hold for three weeks and Vivian Leigh wants to return to England during the hiatus. Selznick shows his rage against his father-in-law and head of MGM , the venerable Louis B. Mayer, who is on his back to get the project off the ground. He says "My father in law is waiting for me to fall on my ass."

Timothy Near's cast is a fearsome engine of hectic delight. Tom Beckett makes a wonderful Selznick. Beckett and John Procaccino as Victor Fleming are side-splitting acting out various scenes of the film. There is a hilarious discussion of the scene where Scarlett slaps Prissy when Melanie's baby is being born. They act out various means of the slap which becomes pure Marx Brothers comedy. Peter Van Norden is on target as Ben Hecht, whom I met numerous times. His drollness is superb. Sarah Nealis completes the small cast with an effective portrayal of Selznick's harried secretary Miss Poppenghul.

Director Near keeps the pacing swift. The physical comedy of the three men is outstanding. Matthew Smucker's Hollywood set is perfect. The art deco office is first rate. He makes the set turn into a wild war zone as the play progresses. At the end the set is full of turned over chairs, boxes and balled up discarded script pages laying about the stage along with piles of banana skins and peanuts. Sound designer Stephen LeGrand has a field day with music from the film coming in at the right time. Costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy are right on the mark and David Lee Cuthbert has designed superior lighting to catch the many moods of this fast-paced piece. A large window in the center of the set casts wonderful lighting techniques that are assets to the play.

There is a nice little touch in the lobby of the theatre with several television scenes showing the many actresses testing for the role of Scarlett. It's amazing to see some of the well known actresses of the day making their screen tests.

Moonlight and Magnolias will run through November 12 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre located 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. For tickets call 408-367-7255 or on line at Their next production will be A Christmas Story opening on November 25 and running through December 30.

Photo: Chris Bennion

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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