Creating History

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ometimes even critics can be wrong. (Hard to imagine, I know, but true.) Browse review-snippets of Moonlight and Magnolias, a comic retelling of how Gone With the Wind was rewritten on deadline and at hyper-speed, and you'll confront a lot of jabber about excessive silliness and slapped-on political content.

But the revelation about Ron Hutchinson's comedy, in moving from page to stage, is how plausibly the arguments about racism and the purposes of art spring out of the Three Stooges routines and back-and-forth wisecracks. This is a comedy that offers something to chew on after the one-liners have melted away. Despite some unconvincing moments and flat spots, director Tralen Doler's production at Actors Rep (through Dec. 9) wrings commentary about politics and power out of its cram-session comedy.

M & amp;M is a comedy about acting and directing, so naturally actors and directors are going to like it. And because its producer-figure gives pep talks to his two colleagues, in terms of a well-known movie embedded in our cultural fabric, audiences will, too. In effect, the producer is encouraging all of us out there in the dark to do work that we love and do it well. That's a message that will resonate with audiences even amid all the guffawing.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he plot's simple: Producer David O. Selznick (Michael Weaver) locks two guys in a room for week so they can collectively rewrite the biggest movie of all time, that's all. Selznick has stopped production on Gone With the Wind, and he's hired director Victor Fleming (John Oswald) and screenwriter Ben Hecht (Patrick Treadway) to help him beat the clock by throwing together a new script.

Much credit is due to ARt's trio of actors for looking progressively disheveled over the marathon. Treadway, in fact, looks haggard from the start -- and he's got a times-five all-nighter in front of him just to get the GWTW script rewritten. With skeptical mouth twists, resigned shoulder slumps and shuffling, uncooperative feet, Treadway nicely understates Hecht's reluctance to write schlock (and worse yet, apolitical schlock without a purpose). Stridency would've been too much in a wit-display full of men screaming at each other; Treadway limns his character in small and effective ways.

Hutchinson has written in a couple of red-faced showdowns between writer and director -- conception and execution -- and Oswald, at some points hunchbacked with vitriol, rages at Hecht, whom he considers a mere typist. But the surprise is how Oswald (who has specialized in portraying elderly men in a couple of productions each at Interplayers and at Actors Rep) delivers a spoof imitation of GWTW's Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, the child who don't know nuthin' about birthin' no babies.

Especially in the first act, though, this thing doesn't run like the wind, not yet. One plot device that Hutchinson uses to get Fleming and Hecht isolated in a conversation is ridiculous and hokey -- but then so is much of Gone With the Wind. Still, there's funny-stupid (the histrionic re-enactments, the slapping routine, the running banana jokes) and then there's just stupid-stupid. The second act, fortunately, opens with a series of blackout scenes that ratchet up the laugh-o-meter.

Some of the pacing and tonal problems lie with Weaver, though maybe that's because the double-fussy wallop of "The Tuna Project" will still seem familiar after just three months to regular theatergoers. There's only so much hip-jiggling, floppy-wrist circling of the stage one can see before the Scarlett O'Hara caricature becomes excessive. Granted, Weaver's Selznick is frantically trying to re-enact most of a four-hour movie so that Treadway, as Hecht, can cobble together some revised pages. But Weaver's sometimes too campy for a man who feels so much responsibility -- to his studio and to the movies in general.

When Selznick first waxes eloquent about the movies, Weaver didn't seem to have turned the emotional corner from comic mugging to pep-talk sincerity. But then the lights dim, the music swells, Weaver pulls back a curtain ... and demonstrates that theater has the power to persuade us that illusion, right this moment, can be truer than mere facts.

Costumer Lisa Caryl puts Weaver in a natty green suit that says, just as it should, Big Shot Producer. Set designer Renae Meredith's sunburst doors use Art Deco flair to complement the room-full-of-powerful-men look (even if these particular power-mongers have bananas stuck in their mouths).

Critics who displayed a knee-jerk anti-popularity response to one of America's most frequently produced plays got it wrong on M & amp;M: Don't believe the claims of its superficiality. Hutchinson plays fast and loose with historical probabilities, but then so did Margaret Mitchell. The three-men-in-a-locked-room five-day rewrite is a myth, and conversations couldn't have been as rapid-fire witty as this in any case.

But Moonlight and Magnolias -- well presented by Actors Rep -- is a comedy worth experiencing. As for what the critics say -- frankly, my dears, I don't give a damn.