The Georgia Ensemble Theatre comedy “Moonlight and Magnolias” co-stars William S. Murphey (from left), Bart Hansard and Googie Uterhardt. CONTRIBUTED BY DAN CARMODY

Theater review: Ensemble muddles ‘Moonlight and Magnolias’

Any high hopes you might have about watching the combined forces of three of Atlanta’s sharpest and liveliest comedic actors are rather quickly dashed in Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s alarmingly dull and sluggish “Moonlight and Magnolias.”

A farce (by Ron Hutchinson) that speculates on the fabled collaboration between producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming and screenwriter Ben Hecht during the making of the classic “Gone With the Wind,” the show represents a fairly inauspicious first effort from the Roswell company’s newly appointed associate artistic director, James Donadio, himself an experienced and reputable actor around town. The premise is superficially entertaining, but the results are profoundly enervating.

To put it another way, although the best thing to be said for Donadio’s staging is probably the promising casting of his crackerjack co-stars, the worst is that he simply sets them aimlessly adrift: William S. Murphey (last seen in “The Book of Will” at Theatrical Outfit) portrays Selznick; Bart Hansard (from 7 Stages’ recent “Waiting for Godot”) plays Fleming; and Googie Uterhardt (late of City Springs’ inaugural “42nd Street”) is Hecht.

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Showbiz legend has it that the Hollywood trio spent five days locked in Selznick’s office, rewriting the script for Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling Civil War epic. Dropping lots of names and dishing gossip with a zeal that’s bound to engage movie buffs, in general — and “GWTW” fans, in particular — they are increasingly prone to performing outrageous re-enactments of several immortal scenes from the film.

For all of the manic physical shtick that ensues, there’s a certain static quality to the proceedings. Each of the actors relishes his isolated moments to let loose, but there’s not much of a cohesive or unifying spark between them.

Googie Uterhardt (left) and William S. Murphey appear in Georgia Ensemble’s “Moonlight and Magnolias.” CONTRIBUTED BY DAN CARMODY
Photo: For the AJC

My first and lasting impression of the play (which premiered locally at the Alliance in 2005) was as a boisterous romp. Here, somewhat ill-advisedly, Donadio frequently seems to impose a contemporary political correctness on the dated period setting of the material. The show’s comedic momentum regularly stalls, on those occasions when Hutchinson’s characters stop to wax philosophical about being Jewish in 1930s Hollywood, or to impart serious observations about slavery in the Civil War-era South.

It doesn’t always land very well, to then have these three white men camping it up in scenes as the “heroic” Southern belle and “master,” Scarlett O’Hara, or her silly and sniveling slave girl, Prissy. (Neither, frankly, does whatever dubious statement the director is trying to make with his anachronistic casting of a black actress, Mahalia Jackson, in the role of Selznick’s put-upon secretary.)

In my original review of that Alliance production, I noted that the comedy “raises a few valid issues — about whether (Mitchell’s novel) is ‘an elegy for the Old South’ or merely ‘glorifying the Confederacy’ — without dwelling on them unnecessarily, under the farcical circumstances.”

Conversely, more often than not, Georgia Ensemble’s “Moonlight and Magnolias” effectively dwells, when it ought to rollick.

THEATER REVIEW

“Moonlight and Magnolias”

Through Jan. 27. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Saturdays (Jan. 19 and 26 only); 2:30 p.m. Sundays. $26-$42. Roswell Cultural Arts Center, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260, get.org.

Bottom line: A poorly paced comedy that thwarts the talents of three spirited co-stars.

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