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Moonlight and Magnolias in Full Bloom at Theatre Southwest

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The setup:

During the golden age of Hollywood, there was no movie more golden than Gone with the Wind, steered, coaxed, shoved into greatness by its manic producer David O. Selznick, who had gone independent after a decade of producing sterling pictures at both RKO and MGM (King Kong, A Tale of Two Cities). Perhaps the most beloved film of all time, the movie arrived pre-packaged with its own delirious fanfare and stupendous advance sale. Not since The Bible had there been such a phenomenally popular book. The one caveat: The book had such a devout following that any divergence from its hallowed melodrama would spell doom. The antics of antiheroine Scarlett O'Hara during the fall of the South had to be faithfully illustrated.

Two weeks into filming, the colossal film hemorrhaged money. Everything was wrong. Director George Cukor was slow and disliked the constant on-set interference from Selznick; star Clark Gable was unhappy that his costumes didn't fit; the Tarleton boys' hair was too red; there weren't enough trees around Tara. The life had gone out of the movie, whose sweeping story is nothing if not tremendously alive. In an unprecedented move Selznick shut down production, firing Cukor and replacing him with Gable's favorite director and best bud Victor Fleming. But Problem No.1 remained -- no script. Well, none that anyone admired. There were scripts galore, scripts of former scripts, scenarios made from cut-out pages from the book, treatments from numerous writers that included heavyweights F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the first, best, detailed treatment from Pulitzer Prize-winner Sidney Howard.

And this is where playwright Ron Hutchinson picks up the story for his wondrous screwball comedy Moonlight and Magnolias, now zipping along at Theatre Southwest at breakneck speed under the whizbang direction of Kathy Drum.

The execution:

Selznick (Patrick Jennings) hires ace script doctor Ben Hecht (Steve Carpentier) -- who had won the first Academy Award for original screenwriting back in 1927 -- at the cushy price of $15,000 for five days worth of work. Selznick locks Hecht in his office with Victor Fleming (Kevin Daugherty), and the three proceed, through sheer guts, indomitable will, and a diet of peanuts and bananas, to turn Mitchell's behemoth of the Old South into celluloid gold. It's the ultimate Hollywood insider's tall tale, and the ultimate hogwash. It was never like that!

The facts: Ultimate professional Hecht unearthed Sidney Howard's original treatment. With Selznick and director Fleming acting out all the characters and convoluted plot, Hecht set out to clarify, edit and polish his predecessor's work, which he did in two weeks. When production resumed, Selznick proceeded to rewrite again.

Hutchinson's slapdash comedy, propulsive and crafty, has plenty of tidbits culled from Selznick's archive of memos and Hecht's own over-glorious putdowns as Hollywood's favorite, richest author. The pace is unstoppable, and even when Hecht, known for his underdog's soapbox, fires off a monologue about being Jewish and unable to buy property in restricted Hancock Park, the play's high continues because his fervor is as unquenchable as Selznick's mania to redeem his father's failed reputation. Man's man Fleming, known for his virile bluster and "ham it up" direction, goes all soft when a blood vessel breaks in his eye, and he's the one who talks Hecht out of walking out before the job is done. The three veterans, offset by the harried secretary Miss Poppenguhl (delightfully ruffled Courtney McManus), find it within themselves to carry on, much like Scarlett, and persevere. Against all odds, they triumph. The ultimate Hollywood story.

Hopped up on Benzedrine and injections of thyroid extract, Selznick was Type-A before that personality was classified, and Patrick Jennings captures all this as the harried, crazed producer. When he talks of film's "flashes of light" and its ephemeral quality to spellbind the imagination, he's quintessential Tinsel Town. Steve Carpentier gives hardened Hecht a pro's shell-like veneer and wise-rabbi attitude. Crumpled and whacked out from lack of sleep and way too many peanuts, he's resourceful like Scarlett and cunning like Rhett. Fleming doesn't have much to do in the play other than act as no-nonsense foil, but Daugherty imbues this most talented of studio hacks into a survivor. He may not have a grand vision, but he knows how to turn someone else's grand vision into pictures. Crawling across the peanut strewn floor to where Hecht lies exhausted over his typewriter, Daugherty reaches for a ratty banana as if it were the golden ring.

The verdict:

All of Hollywood is a facade, said Selznick near the end of his life. Hutchinson shows us the lowdown with laughter and energy to spare. In Selznick's papier-mâché world, there's nothing more real than a dream.

The heady scent of magnolias and bananas fills Theatre Southwest through January 21 at 8944-Clarkcrest. Order tickets online at www.theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505.

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