Review: Moonlight and Magnolias by Gaslight Baker Theatre
by Michael Meigs

Lots of folks turned out for the last Saturday night performance of Roy Hutchinson's Moonlight and Magnolias by the Gaslight Baker Theatre. Word of mouth had been at work down in Lockhart about this guys' screwball comedy.

Esther Williams (ALT photo)There is a dame in the cast. Esther Williams has only a few lines in her role as Miss Poppenghul, the earnest and attentive secretary to Hollywood producer David O. Selznick (David Schneider). Most of those are variations on "Yes, Mr. Selnick" and "Right away, Mr. Selznick." In the midst of the rowdy five-day shouting match carried on by Selznick, screenwriter Ben Hecht (Randy Wachtel) and film director Victor Fleming (Steve Lawson) as they labor to save the script of Gone with the Wind, Miss Poppenghul's increasing disarray and wide-eyed apprehension are a running gag that neatly upstages the battle royal.

Playwright Hutchinson latched onto a remarkable moment in Hollywood history. Wikipedia quotes Ben Hecht's biographer William McAdams: "At dawn on Sunday, February 20, 1939, David Selznick ... and director Victor Fleming shook Hecht awake to inform him he was on loan from MGM and must come with them immediately and go to work on Gone with the Wind, which Selznick had begun shooting five weeks before. It was costing Selznick $50,000 each day the film was on hold waiting for a final screenplay rewrite and time was of the essence." The three men locked themselves up in Selznick's office for five days (Hecht later said it was for eight days). Because Hecht hadn't read the novel, the other two acted out the principal scenes and Hecht turned that into a script.


Steve Lawson, David Schneider (ALT photo)Hutchinson turns this into a sort of highly verbal Three Stooges comedy, a slapstick mixture of exaggerated characterization and stinging gibes based on Hollywood history. For example, Selznick insists that they should have nothing to eat because that would distract them from the task at hand, so he sends away the cart heaped with bagels (Miss Poppenghul dutifully steers it off from the astonished Hecht). Selznick plays the breathy Scarlett O'Hara; opening the second act, Fleming is supine on the desk top, legs thrashing as he portrays Miss Melanie having her baby. Hecht the civil libertarian is aghast when Selznick wants the heroine to slap her black maid Prissy. And so it goes.

David Schneider struts and shouts like a real Hollywood producer, and he bears a curious resemblance to the photos of Selznick. He berates, bemoans, belittles and belly aches, all of it at such a high volume that I was surprised that he hadn't lost his voice in the course of the run. Playwright Hutchinson does invent a welcome moment of catatonia for Selznick in the second act, in order to give Fleming and Hecht the chance to flee their writers' hell -- and then to decide nobly against abandoning contracts and project.

Lawson's forthright Fleming is a long-enduring craftsman, ready even for this hell rather than return to his origins as an automobile mechanic. Lawson gets two of the best laughs of the evening: the first about his relief at getting away from The Wizard of Oz and the grown-up antics of those foul little Munchkins, and the second when he serenely turns down Selznick's offer of a percentage of the gross, certain that Gone with the Wind will be a turkey.

Randy Wachtel (ALT photo)Randy Wachtel as Ben Hecht is a chunky little tea pot on the boil, unapologetic about not having read the novel but confident that he can turn anything, even Selznick's amateur theatricals, into a usable script. Wachtel's rubber-faced grimaces over the typewriter and his business while eating a stolen banana constitute a scene-stealing cartoon all to themselves.

The crowd loved it. Gaslight Baker's production was one that had a bit of everything, with something for everyone -- clowning, film buff history, zooming egos and parodies of that beloved-for-all-time American film. Not much room -- or need -- for quiet reflection in this one!



NOTE: Congratulations to Todd Martin, long-time GBT regular and accomplished theatre artist, for his appointment as Artistic Director, a decision that shows that the group will continue to "put the art in LockhART"!



Click to view program for Moonlight and Magnolias by Gaslight Baker Theatre


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Moonlight and Magnolias
by Ron Hutchinson
Gaslight Baker Theatre

January 29 - February 14, 2010
Gaslight Baker Theatre
216 South Main Street
Lockhart, TX, 78644