Review: 'Gone With the Wind' as comedy?

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"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." A comedy that brings down the house with this famous line has to be good ... and "Moonlight and Magnolias" is. Director Marilyn Tullgren and her talented four-person cast move the audience from belly laughs to sighs to tears in this brilliant interpretation of Ron Hutchinson's 2004 play.

Famous producer David O Selznik has a problem. He's paid a fortune for the rights to "Gone With the Wind" but after just three weeks of filming, production is stalled at a cost of $50,000 a day. He's fired director George Cuckor and four screenwriters have failed to turn Margaret Mitchell's 1013-page blockbuster novel into a manageable screenplay.

Selznik's solution is to hire the renowned script doctor Ben Hecht and to pull director Victor Fleming off of the set of "The Wizard of Oz" to helm "Gone With the Wind." With the clock expensively ticking, there's no time to spare and Selznik decides to lock himself, the director and the screenwriter into an office for five days to rework the massive script.

The forced collaboration of these three big talents (and big egos) yields all manner of jokes, jibes and hijinks. To get the dialog right, Hecht, Fleming and Selznick take turns acting out key scenes. Perhaps the best is Fleming's hilarious impression of Miss Melanie giving birth on the floor while her slave Prissy — played by Selznick — panics.

Mark Tullgren perfectly inhabits the role of the irascible, profane yet occasionally inspiring David O. Selznik. His resonant voice and commanding stage presence provide the necessary gravitas while his wicked sense of humor lightens things up at just the right moments.

Gregory Lesch captures the arrogance, bombast and vulnerability of Victor Fleming's character. He and Hecht frequently remind each other of their humble origins — the former a chauffeur and the later a Chicago crime journalist.

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Samuel Murphy does a superb job of conveying Hecht's incisive humor and frustrated idealism. The actor is most passionate when portraying Hecht's attempts to reframe the script in a less racist and more historically accurate direction. He knows that the "happy slave" narrative embedded in Mitchell's novel is a miserable distortion created to salve Southern consciences. When his fellow Jew Selznick resists the suggested alterations, Hecht convincingly compares the racism of 1860s Georgia to the anti-semitism both men have experienced in 1939 Hollywood.

Murphy's performance also revels in Hecht's legendary contempt for the industry that made him rich and famous. Here's Hecht on producers: "I discovered early in my movie work that a movie is never any better than the stupidest man connected with it. There are times when this distinction may be given to the writer or director. Most often it belongs to the producer."

Veteran local actor Gail Haas is well cast as Selznick's long-suffering secretary Miss Poppenghull. She manages to retain her dignity while fulfilling increasingly absurd orders hollered by her cranky boss. Miss Poppenghul's conservative dress and demeanor provide comic foil every time she enters the office and witnesses the three creatives trashing the room and insulting each other.

The show's impeccable stagecraft is a tribute to the talents of a host of volunteers including stage manager Heather Martell, lighting wizards Squeak Stone, Susan Sanders and Jim Bombocino, props mistress Gail Haas and, of course, the play's gifted director Marilyn Tullgren. The set, lighting, sound, props and costumes are all of professional quality.

Actors Theatre Playhouse Artistic Director Sam Pilo ranks "Moonlight and Magnolias" as the funniest script ever produced by his company. "The dialogue is so well scripted and character-driven that you are thrown into the maelstrom of Selznick's hellzapoppin panic from the very first moment. Watching the characters improvise and construct all of the scenes from `Gone With The Wind' that we already know so well and take for granted, turns everything on its head and is comedy writing at its best. `Birthing Babies' is never to be forgotten."

"Moonlight and Magnolias" continues at the Actors Theatre Playhouse, Fridays, and Saturdays through Sept. 7. Reservations are highly recommended. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. The toll-free box office is 877-666-1855. All Tickets are $15 for general admission. More info at www.atplayhouse.org/


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