Moonlight and Magnolias

The play doesn't know what it wants to be, but it's still a fun night of theatre, especially for film buffs

<i>GWTW</i>, WTF?: (l-r) Selznick (Ryan Crowder), 
Hecht (Dave Buckman), and Fleming (Jay Fraley) see Scarlett
GWTW, WTF?: (l-r) Selznick (Ryan Crowder), Hecht (Dave Buckman), and Fleming (Jay Fraley) see Scarlett
Photo by Kimberley Mead

Moonlight and Magnolias

City Theatre, 3823-D Airport, 850-4849
Through Oct. 21
Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.

I've had The Wizard of Oz on my mind a lot throughout my life, having had a hand in at least a half-dozen stage versions. In Moonlight and Magnolias, David O. Selznick has Dorothy and crew on his mind, too – though not at the forefront. Instead, the iconic film producer is singing the tune of "Tara on My Mind" alongside the writer and director he's handpicked (and imprisoned in his office) to create the screenplay for what would become the highest grossing film of the 20th century.

Director Victor Fleming has been yanked from MGM's The Wizard of Oz to take over Selznick's Gone With the Wind (both 1939 releases), and Jewish screenwriter Ben Hecht has the ominous overtones of World War II ringing especially loud in his ears. As the latter, Dave Buckman delivers the most sincere performance in Penfold Theatre's production. But of the characters in Ron Hutchinson's script, Hecht has the most dramatic clay to work with. (From one writer to another, perhaps?) However, this doesn't seem to be a show concerned chiefly with the "seriously dramatic." As Penfold Producing Artistic Director (and this production's Selznick) Ryan Crowder states of the script in his program notes: "Immediately, I was taken with its sheer fun." And that's what Hutchinson seems to want primarily to provide: sheer fun. Right?

I'm still not really sure. The play doesn't seem to know exactly what it intends to be. If it does, it lacks levels that would clarify and vary its occasionally monotone, uh, tone. This isn't to take away from the convincing performances of Buckman, Crowder, or their equally seasoned castmates, Jay Fraley (Fleming) and Aidan Sullivan (Selznick's secretary, Miss Poppenghul). This team works hard indeed to keep the show's momentum heading forward, as does veteran director (and Chronicle Arts Editor) Robert Faires. But they all have to contend with a script that repeatedly wades into the waters of social commentary only to retreat too quickly to shore each time it does. Similarly, the "vaudeville banter, Three Stooges slapstick, and ridiculously escalating antics" mentioned in Crowder's notes aren't completely convincing in frame. Again, this isn't for lack of effort by the Penfold folks, who wrestle hard with the script, with farcical and funny results much of the time. But I also wanted to feel the tumult of those oncoming torrents from Europe much more than I did (given Hutchinson's red herring-esque setups in the script), and the production team just isn't given quite enough of this material.

Clearly, Moonlight and Magnolias is not my favorite play in the world. That said, I do believe that movie buffs – especially fans of Thirties Hollywood – will likely find a great deal of entertainment in Penfold's staging. There are many riotous moments, to be sure, and while the script may not be "my thing" in terms of theatrical fare, it will almost certainly appeal to many looking for a fun night of theatre, with a little back-lot legend thrown in for good measure.

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