Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle:MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS at Alameda’s Altarena—superior talent, good cookies, LOLs.

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday June 14, 2011 - 10:08:00 PM
John Hale as Victor Fleming, Tim Reynolds as David O. Selzick, and Keith Jefferds as Ben Hecht
Patrick Tracy
John Hale as Victor Fleming, Tim Reynolds as David O. Selzick, and Keith Jefferds as Ben Hecht

Moonlight and Magnolias, now at the Altarena Playhouse in Alameda on High St., is a well-directed and well-acted three-man drama. Director Stewart Lyle, himself an Equity actor, has had his second success with this triangular formula, having done a successful “Art” at this theatre a couple of seasons ago. 

It’s semi-modeled on the true story of David O. Selznick who fired the director and screenwriters of “Gone With the Wind,” took director Victor Fleming off “The Wizard of Oz”, conned Ben Hecht into a rewrite, and locked them and himself in his office for five days to live on peanuts and bananas and write a screenplay on the famous Margaret Mitchell book—that two of them had never read. They act out all the roles in the book, and that’s the basis of half the funny stuff. 

Lyle gets a lot of acting out of his crew: Keith Jefferds is subtle and convincing as Ben Hecht, the screenwriting superstar with a defensiveness about his Jewishness (and who wouldn’t be in 1939); Jefferds attends to the details in little things like typing with two fingers as was the manly way to type in the ‘30’s.  

Tim Reynolds as Selznick rides that thin line between big comic and over-acting and keeps in bounds, infusing comic “end of my rope” outrage and making it work, while cajoling, threatening, persuading, and torturing his talent and making them love him for it. He keeps the bombastic energy flowing and the comedy coming. 

It would be perhaps better if they had gotten two older Jewish actors for Hecht and Selzick, but these two goyim do ok; a little more deadpan wryness might have brought it from funny to very funny, but there is plenty of Laughing Out Loud here.  

John Hale, as Victor Fleming, has impeccable comic timing, goes from subtle and snide to insanely Marx Bros-worthy antics, and handles all the “roles” he must enact— including Butterfly McQueen’s “I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies”—with such good humor and commitment that no one could be offended. 

Donna Turner does an exemplary job as the put-upon “Yes, Mr. Selzick” secretary in a difficult role of many short appearances, and gives an arc to a character that is usually just window-dressing.  

Darrell Burson’s sets are extraordinary, and keep getting better every time I attend this theatre. He did a markedly realistic turn at designing the beauty shop for, ironically, “Steel Magnolias” last season. He displays his artistry in scenic painting of the famous red-sky scene from the overture, the Hollywood hills, and the famous voluted sign from the opening credits of the GWTW, which all figure into his design for this presentation in the round. The costumes by Sydney Micheals are nicely period and very tasteful, and still give the actors room for their extensive physical shenanigans. 

For my taste, Ron Hutchinson’s script is too broad and with too much Hellzapopin’ chaos, mess, and lunacy. I’ve seen it before with an Equity cast, and this amateur production far outdoes that one. The comedy is played well—and there is enough comedy that it deserves the name— but there is lots of soap-boxing about who makes the movies—directors, writers or producers—and about race and ethnic prejudice.  

There is some truth to what Christopher Isherwood wrote in the NY Times when it opened in 2005: “Mr. Hutchinson has drawn his characters in tiresomely broad and blunt strokes. And the action of the play, which mostly consists of Selznick and Fleming frantically acting out scenes from the book while Hecht clacks away at a typewriter, relies heavily on moldy routines that might have been dredged up from old Abbott and Costello features and Three Stooges shorts.” 

But it is a good time, vastly superior to the typical community theatre production, and enacted by talent who should be getting paid but are doing it solely for the love of you know what. The price is right, the free cookies are excellent, and you’ll be home by 10:15. 

Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson 

at the Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda or (510) 523-1553 

Directed by Stewart Lyle, lighting design by Kristie Leffler, scene design and painting by Darrell Burson, costumes and properties by Sydney Micheals, sound design by Ryan Short; stage management by Kelly Reynolds. 

With: John Hale, Keith Jefferds, Tim Reynolds, and Donna Turner