You're not in The Twilight Zone when you see an ace screenwriter, kidnapped in a drunken stupor, pour two scalding cups of coffee down his gullet without yowling in pain or snapping awake. You're not in the realm of Ripley's Believe It or Not! if that same writer instantly achieves wakefulness and sobriety when told by a powerful Hollywood producer that he's just started a new job at $15,000 a week. Nope, you're at Duke Energy Theatre watching Don't Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell — and you're definitely in the realm of farce.
But this farcical Starving Artist Production, directed by Matt Cosper, is based on fact. The writer is Ben Hecht, kidnapped by David O. Selznick and tasked to rewrite the shooting script for Gone With the Wind in February 1939, when a $15,000-a-week salary would make you a millionaire in today's dollars in less than a month. As we learn from Hecht's account of his lucrative captivity, he and Selznick subsisted on nothing but salted peanuts and bananas during their hibernation.
Margaret Mitchell is the second of two Duke Theatre plays that have built upon Hecht's sketchy narrative; the first, in 2008, was Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson. Margaret Mitchell comes from mother-and-son writing team Virginia Cate and Duke Ernsberger. Both plays mine the comical possibilities of the studio office littered with discarded manuscript pages, peanut shells and banana peels, but the more diligently researched Magnolias took a more serious tack. Monologues gushed forth from Hecht and Selznick extolling the respective virtues of screenwriters and producers. Hutchinson doled out a third monologue to director Victor Fleming, whom Selznick yanked off the set of The Wizard of Oz to replace George Cukor.
Without putting any of their protagonists on a soapbox, Cate and Ernsberger do show Selznick's frustrations with Hollywood censors and civil rights advocates. Hecht and Fleming, on the other hand, feel hamstrung by Selznick's hesitance to show the true degradation of slavery. Imagining the marathon more vividly, Cate and Ernsberger emphasize the farcical: sobering up Hecht, reviving Selznick when he goes "torpid," and the group madness precipitated by stress, sleeplessness and the superabundance of bananas.
Fondly remembered for his comical roles with Charlotte Repertory Theatre and the Children's Theatre, Ernsberger returns to the local scene as Hecht. Interesting juxtaposition, for while the playwright is playing the screenwriter, Starving Artist founder Nathan Rouse takes on Selznick, producer playing producer. The casting is a surprising departure for Rouse, whose work over the past five years in Charlotte has been exclusively in dramatic fare.
Rouse's alliance with Cosper, also identified with serious and experimental projects, inflicts noticeable — but far from fatal — damage on the old-timey flavors of the script. There are insidious outbreaks of realism that should have been resisted. Ernsberger is playing Hecht's initial drunkenness and befuddlement nearly straight. Laugh lines aren't delivering during that sequence, and when the first act curtain falls with a specially zany zing, Katherine Goforth as Miss Peabody, Selznick's private secretary, is hanging back at the mogul's doorway when she delivers her bon mot instead of proclaiming it from center stage.
So the Starving Artist edition of Margaret Mitchell isn't always as hilarious as the regional premiere I witnessed up at Virginia's Barter Theatre in 2008, but when Rouse allows himself to settle into a truly egomaniacal mode, the balance shifts southward to the Duke. Rouse's torpid scene and Ernsberger's homicidal fit also score high on the laugh meter.
James K. Flynn masterfully handles the mediating Fleming, reading some of the dialogue from Mitchell's Dixie epic with a stunning lack of acting prowess before he is finally coaxed into giving a couple of the female roles a full falsetto. You'll miss the best of Goforth if you linger in the lobby at intermission. Her dance rightfully earns the applause as it foreshadows the climax of Act 2.