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Comedy is Hard

May 1, 2011

The late English actor Edmund Gwenn is often given credit for uttering the phrase, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Mr. Gwenn may have been commenting on Forward Theater’s new production of playwright Ron Hutchinson’s “Moonlight and Magnolias,” which opened Friday at The Playhouse in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

The play re-imagines the five days that producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming and writer Ben Hecht spent locked in Selznick’s office with nothing but bananas and peanuts for sustenance in a marathon attempt to fix Sidney Howard’s failing script for Gone With the Wind,” a film already three weeks into production. Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray (also Forward’s artistic director) bills the play as a “screwball comedy.” Unfortunately, the label undervalues the play’s content while over-promising its delivery.

A comedy it most certainly is, with actors Mark Ulrich (Selznick), Michael Herold (Hecht), Jim Buske (Fleming) and Celia Klehr (the fictional Miss Poppenguhl) working harder than any of them probably ever thought possible to bring home the laughs. Uphoff Gray observes and executes comedy’s number one of rule of keeping her characters within Hutchinson’s narrative and letting none of them play to the audience which, at least during Saturday evening’s performance, found a lot at which to laugh.

But for all of its absurdities, “Moonlight and Magnolias,” require a deft touch that the director appears to lack. The narrative mixes overall foolishness with witty asides and a serious look at Hollywood’s anti-Semitism, each of which requires a different intellectual cadence and delivery. The two-hour performance bounces merrily along over all three attributes as if they constituted a level playing field, resulting in commentary lost, social issues minimized and a brief wrestling match among the three male principles so forced as to elicit embarrassed titters from an audience perhaps waiting for it to end.

As Selznick, Chicago-based actor Ulrich is a whirling dervish of equal parts enthusiasm and anxiety that becomes a spinning hub desperately trying to move the spokes of his creative wheel to action. As Hecht, Herold plays his humorous and acerbic observation’s straight, allowing the material’s wit to show through. Hecht, an ardent Zionist, would like to turn Gone With the Wind into a screed railing against the social injustice of slavery, something even the sympathetic Selznick knows won’t sell movie tickets.

Buske’s portrayal of Fleming, a former chauffeur who became Hollywood’s “man’s director” and was rumored to have slapped an uncooperative Judy Garland on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” falls surprisingly flat at first. As the marathon writing session wears everyone down, Buske’s voice remarkably takes on the characteristics of Gene Wilder in full angst, which helps raise the level of his contribution. Klehr, who has little do other than serve as Selznick’s secretarial go-fer, blossoms in a hilarious moment when she acts out the story’s characters in silhouette against a moodily lit sky.

Kudos to Sasha Augustine’s highly detailed period set, which becomes increasingly littered with peanut shells, banana peels and crumpled typing paper throughout the performance, and Ann Archbold’s dramatic and witty lighting design. Both provide critical ambience that helps move the story along.

Comedy is indeed hard, as Uphoff Gray’s cast demonstrates, but the play works well sometimes even despite its handling. Credit for that is due largely to everyone’s sincere desire to please, which helps carry “Moonlight and Magnolias” through the rough patches and still make us feel it was time well spent.

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