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The Recent Unpleasantness

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Have you ever been to a party where everyone else is intoxicated and you're not? You know that feeling of being out of the fun? That's exactly how I felt at the opening of Barksdale's production of Ron Hutchinson's "Moonlight and Magnolias." I simply did not get it. My bewilderment only increased as the majority of the audience obviously enjoyed the play, mocking me with their bursts of laughter throughout the performance and bright, smiling faces exiting the theater.

My perception was that three-quarters of the cast overacted so much that the show became too absurd to be funny. Many of the jokes fell flat for me because of their offensive nature. Serious issues such as racism were treated so matter-of-factly that they were lost in a sea of mediocrity. But keep in mind, clearly 90 percent of the audience had a ball.

Perhaps I had trouble with "Moonlight and Magnolias" because I'm too much like the writer character, Ben Hecht (Scott Wichmann), overly sensitive to social issues. Or maybe it's because I was once a huge "Gone With the Wind" fan who studied things like the making of the movie and its characters, material covered by a mix of history and myth in "Moonlight." I know a little too much about the facts to enjoy the mishmash of factual and fictional information spewed forth in the script to let it flow. Or maybe it was my preoccupation with the dangers of David Bridgewater's chest-driven overly loud vocals. For whatever reason, it was not my cup of tea.

Humor of this play's kind is achieved when believable ordinary people find themselves in extraordinary situations that are sometimes painful. The premise of the play offers up the right kind of extraordinary situation: Three men (Joe Pabst as producer David O. Selznick, Bridgewater as director Victor Fleming and Wichmann as screenwriter Hecht) are locked in a room for five days to rewrite the script for "Gone With the Wind," while loyal secretary Miss Popenguhl (Joy Williams) patiently waits in the adjoining office to fetch bananas, peanuts and water.

Pabst, Bridgewater and Williams seem to be participating in a misguided contest of comedic one-upmanship, resulting in over-the-top acting that disrupts the balance of irony required to achieve the true humor of the play's concept. Their characters have way too much energy at the end of five sleepless days and are falling over themselves trying to be tired. Wichmann, who is extremely gifted, is sadly underutilized in this production and vividly stands out as the best actor.

"Moonlight and Magnolias" is great light entertainment for holiday house guests. If they're feeling nostalgic, they'll probably love it. If they are like me, they might describe it in the words of Hecht as he describes the first page of "Gone With the Wind" -- "Feh." S



"Moonlight and Magnolias" runs through Jan. 20 at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn. Tickets are $38. Call 282-2620 or visit www.barksdalerichmond.org.



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