"Moonlight and Magnolias," currently showing at McAninch Arts Center under the auspices of Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, ought to have a lot going for it. Its subject, "Gone with the Wind," was the most popular movie of all time. The play's characters -- producer David O. Selnick, Chicago-journalist-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming -- were fascinating real-life individuals. The scenario poses real dramatic and comic potential.
Loosely based on history, the play, by Ron Hutchinson, covers a five-day period when a frantic Selznick, three weeks into filming of the epic Civil War drama, tosses out its script and cans its director. Calling Fleming off the set of "The Wizard of Oz," and bringing in Hecht, a legendary script doctor, he locks them in his office to rewrite the screenplay with nothing but peanuts and bananas for sustenance.
Right there, you begin to see the trouble. Nobody short of Woody Allen ever achieved sensitive comedy featuring a banana. This one is so broad it rivals The Three Stooges. BTE Director Kurt Naebig manfully resists having anyone pratfall on a banana peel, but he can't help pulling out all the slapstick stops.
The three Hollywood legends bicker and squabble, trade gibes full of movie trivia and throw peanuts at each other. Hecht, a noted Zionist, keeps trying find the plot's Jewish angle. It turns out that the screenwriter never read Margaret Mitchell's novel, so Selznick and Fleming act it out for him, playing Ashley Wilkes, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara in turns. How can it help being a hamfest?
You can see Robert Jordan Bailey, as Selznick, painfully striving for some restraint, but the effect is labored.
In the program, Buffalo Artistic Director Connie Canaday Howard says the ensemble chose this play "because it's hard to resist the appeal of a backstage story if you love arts and entertainment." Unless you're really gone on "Gone with the Wind," though, this one is resistible.
The production has its enjoyable moments. Michael W. Moon has built a fine set and Naebig's excellent staging does a lot with it, achieving a few laughs with physical comedy. (Even The Stooges are funny sometimes.) Josh Odor, as Fleming, and Gregory Rothman, as Hecht, put in handsome performances. Despite lines that mostly amount to "Yes, Mr. Selznick ... no, Mr. Selznick," Rebecca Cox, as Selznick's beleaguered secretary, offers some expressive touches.
The reviews were scathing when "Moonlight and Magnolias" premiered in 2005 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, after a temperate reception to its Chicago tryout at the Goodman Theatre. Although local theater goers risk less at the box office than New Yorkers, it takes a lot of confidence for a regional theater company to put on a play that bombed in the Big Apple.
I give BTE credit for guts, but I can't, ultimately, say their best efforts surmount this sappy script enough to be worth your ticket dollar.
"Moonlight and Magnolias"
Rating: 2 stars
Location: McAninch Arts Center, College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, (630) 942-4000, atthemac.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through Sunday, Oct. 11
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with a 10-minute intermission
Tickets: $25 to $33
Parking: Free lot near theater
Rating: For adults