Moonlight and Magnolias
Charleston Stage Company
Running through Sept. 23
The Dock Street Theatre
135 Church St., 577-5967

Author Ron Hutchinson spins his 2005 play Moonlight and Magnolias on the conceit that a Hollywood writer can bang out an Academy Award-winning screenplay, based on a 1,000-page epic novel he’s never read, in a mere five days. While it might not stretch credulity to suggest Hutchinson’s own script for 2004’s Flight of the Phoenix took him just a single working week, our suspension of disbelief ends where his assertion that Gone With the Wind was a five-day rush job begins.

Nevertheless, that’s the premise of Moonlight and Magnolias, which Charleston Stage is giving a smart production at the Dock Street for its first play of the new season. Sure, it’s preposterous, but then so is much of Gone With the Wind, so maybe it’s all of a piece.

Half screwball comedy, half heart-tugging Jewish solidarity drama, Moonlight takes place in 1939 in the office of MGM producer David O. Selznick (Randy Risher), who’s halted filming on GWTW, fired the director, and chucked the worthless screenplay into the trash. Desperate to salvage not just any picture, but an epic, history-making film out of the ashes of this situation, he pulls director Victor Fleming (J.C. Conway) off The Wizard of Oz and brings in busy screenwriter Ben Hecht (Jeff Jordan) to his office for a marathon working meeting. Locked in the office and fortified, mysteriously, with nothing but roasted peanuts and bananas, the three struggle to overcome the dramatic obstacles presented by a looming deadline, three willful and antagonistic personalities, and the puzzle of how to turn a melodramatic bodice-ripper set in the Civil War-blasted South into a blockbuster film.

For the most part, they succeed. Selznick’s got his overbearing father-in-law and studio mogul Samuel Mayer waiting for him to fail. Fleming, a former driver for studio types who’s worked his way up the directorial ladder, has nothing but contempt for screenwriters in general, and Hecht in particular. Hecht has his own demons to deal with, namely the seeming impossibility of the task before him, as well as a big Semitic chip on his shoulder. The setup is established, the conflicts broad enough to march Sherman’s army through, and the three men set to tearing each other to pieces while trying to hammer out something worth putting on celluloid.

For five sleepless days, Selznick and Fleming act out over-the-top scenes from Margaret Mitchell’s novel — which the two seem to have memorized word for word — from which Hecht, crouched over a battered Selectric, forges his screenplay.

For an in-demand, veteran Hollywood screenwriter, Hecht sure seems to have a powerful antiestablishment streak. He rails against the liberties directors take with his scripts, he belittles the studio machine, he flogs the unwillingness of Selznick and his cronies to take any artistic risks, and he chews up the scenery (a spiffy Art Deco-style executive office by Stefanie Christensen) when he embarks on an extended rant about why the Jewish-run studio system never makes films from the Jewish perspective. Hecht also manages to throw tantrums about the evils of making slave-owning Southerners their story’s protagnoists — the famous slap Scarlett delivers to Prissy sends him into fits — and the impossibility of ending a movie without tying everything into a neat, happy bow. It’s a miracle Hecht ever got any work at all, with an attitude like that.

Director Marybeth Clark’s actors deliver their lines with crack timing and perfect pacing, and her blocking is as unobtrusive as it is effective. Randy Risher holds things together well as David Selznick, though he has a tendancy to examine his fingernails and toy with the edge of a book while speaking, making him look less like a media mogul than a schoolboy. J.C. Conway has just the right level of uncomplicated, matter-of-fact machismo and arrogance as Victor Fleming. Jeff Jordan is technically strong on his lines and delivery, but even though he’s certainly capable of nuanced work, he seems to employ just a handful of useful expressions here: skeptical (mouth drawn tight, dimple fixed), angry (brow furrowed, dimple fixed), and incredulous (eyes wide, mouth agape). Sheridan Essman, as Selznick’s increasingly frazzled secretary, almost steals the show with her clipped-heel forays into the office for instructions (“Yes, Mr. Selznick. No, Mr. Selznick. Yes, Mr. Selznick.”), and Barbara Young’s 1930’s-era costumes evoke the period perfectly.

Charleston Stage opens strong with Moonlight and Magnolias, boding well for its 29th season. Fiddle-dee-dee indeed.

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