Bananas and Peanuts

Buff, good-looking Rus Blackwell lay on the floor like an overturned bug, feet flailing in the air. Wild-eyed, Turner Crumbley was on his knees staring intently at Blackwell's crotch. "Push, push!" Crumbley demanded.

"I'm pushin'!" Blackwell responded, with a slightly affected drawl and a wail of feigned child-birthin' pain. Stunned, Bill Campbell shifted his disbelieving eyes from the duo on the floor to the typewriter in front of him and pounded the keys in a frenzy.

It's the opening of act one, scene two of "Moonlight and Magnolias," and the men were rehearsing their roles as "Gone With The Wind" director Victor Fleming, producer David O. Selznick and writer Ben Hecht, respectively. It had fallen to Fleming and Selznick to act out the action in Margaret Mitchell's tome for Hecht, because Hecht hadn't read the book—unlike every other red-blooded American in 1939. Selznick gave Hecht five days to pull off a minor miracle: Completely rewrite the script, three weeks into production.

Presented by New Stage Theatre, the play, written by Ron Hutchinson and directed by New Stage veteran Ivan Rider, was first produced in 2004. It's based—loosely—on an actual event: "Gone With The Wind" producer Selznick fired his friend, director George Cukor. Three weeks in, he didn't have a workable script and, after years of planning, his dream project seemed headed for oblivion along with his money and his reputation. Selznick turned to Fleming and Hecht to pull his chestnuts from the fire.

Picture two savvy California guys playing all the melodramatic southern parts—Melanie and Scarlett, Ashley and Rhett, Mammy and Prissy—in an escalating delirium of sleepless nights, subsisting only on a "brain food" diet of bananas and peanuts. Combine that with Fleming and Selznick's Hollywood salesmanship sensibilities and Hecht's heightened awareness of 1939's—and the film's—political realities and insensitivities, and you get the best kind of comedy: fast-paced, smart, thought-provoking and flat-out hilarious. A little less than two weeks into rehearsals, the lively banter was already solid, and the physical comedy was in the final stages of polish.

"There are certainly ideas within the text that give the piece solidity," director Rider said, "but there's no pulpit."

The animated comedy doesn't gloss over the political atmosphere of the time: Hitler is starting his war for world domination while persecuting the Jews, and the Klan is running wild in the post-Depression South. The incredulous Hecht is nearly flummoxed trying to make the white southern slave holders the heroes of the piece.

"What gives the play merit, beyond just a 'behind-the-scenes' look at Hollywood, are the three very contrasting personalities," said New Stage Artistic Director Francine Thomas Reynolds after the rehearsal. She also plays the small part of Miss Poppenghul, Selznick's faithful secretary.

The troupe likens the play's repartee to movie classics like "The Front Page," "Adam's Rib" and "The Odd Couple," and they also mentioned TV and movie writer Aaron Sorkin, who penned dialogue for "The West Wing" and the critically acclaimed comedy "Sports Night."

"I like comedies that have that Lemmon/Matthau sensibility," Blackwell said. "There's some heart underneath it. It's not fluff by any means."

"I would love it if people walked out saying, 'Did they really do that?'" said Crumbley, a native Mississippian, referring to the physicality of the play. In another scene, the three of them planned how to film Scarlett slapping her slave Prissy, and it nearly turned into a free-for-all.

Blackwell explained that this isn't a "chick flick" by any means, despite the fluffy-sounding title, which is actually a dig at Hollywood.

I asked the troupe what they would say if someone asked for a recommendation. "It's fun, and it's shorter than the movie," Blackwell said, cracking everyone up. They all heartily agreed—the movie runs almost four hours, while the play runs about 90 minutes including the intermission. "It's the visual CliffsNotes of 'Gone With The Wind," Campbell added.

Actor Peter Ustinov once said, "Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious," and "Moonlight and Magnolias" is a prime example of just how good an intelligent comedy really can be.

"Moonlight and Magnolias" runs April 17-29 at New Stage Theatre in Belhaven. Weekday and Saturday curtains, 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Tickets $22; seniors/students $18. 601-948-3531.


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