Lawrence Toppman

Expect to laugh at Davidson Community Players’ ‘Cry’

Ben Hecht (Chris Honsaker, kneeling) explains to Victor Fleming (Jonathan Ray), Peabody (Julia Benfield) and David O. Selznick (Bill Reilly) that he has eaten his last banana in “Don’t Cry For Me, Margaret Mitchell.”
Ben Hecht (Chris Honsaker, kneeling) explains to Victor Fleming (Jonathan Ray), Peabody (Julia Benfield) and David O. Selznick (Bill Reilly) that he has eaten his last banana in “Don’t Cry For Me, Margaret Mitchell.”

Here’s my favorite background story about “Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell:”

Duke Ernsberger and Virginia Cate were collaborating on this play about producer David O. Selznick, who tries to redo a script for “Gone With the Wind” with ghostwriter Ben Hecht, director Victor Fleming and a secretary.

The mother-son team had never had a play produced but figured they had a winner after 17 years of trying. Then they learned “Moonlight and Magnolias” had opened at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre – with the same four characters and plot.

His mom thought a bit. “Somebody else is doing exactly the same idea,” Cate said. “That means it must be good.” So after convincing Dramatists Play Service they weren’t plagiarists, “Cry” opened at Barter Theatre in Virginia in 2008.

This kind of unshakable, can-do optimism pervades the comedy, which Davidson Community Players has revived at tiny Armour Street Theatre. (Tickets are already hard to get.)

The three men spend a week trapped in an office suite, convinced they can adapt the most popular book of the 1930s into something better than Sidney Howard’s screenplay. (Howard got sole screen credit, though Hecht and three other writers contributed to it.)

The frantic Selznick (Bill Reilly), carping Hecht (Chris Honsaker in an auspicious DCP debut) and slow-burning Fleming (Jonathan Ray) get on each other’s nerves and our funny bones, with Peabody (Julia Benfield) providing a bit of sanity.

Director Vito Abate was supposed to be part of the play’s Charlotte premiere in 2007, until it was cancelled; he finally has a chance to express his vision, and it’s a broadly comic one. The scene where the other two guys try to waken a catatonic Selznick becomes a wild second-act bit, with Reilly proving he can be funny even when he’s immobile.

Because we know how the story turns out, we’re not caught up in the plot so much as the journey.

We’re left to wonder why Selznick seems so comfortable flouncing around while acting out Scarlett O’Hara’s lines, or whether Fleming really wanted to rush back to the happier set of “The Wizard of Oz.” (He is the credited director on both films, though he started neither. Three directors worked on “Wind,” five on “Oz.”)

Ernsberger and Cate take time to give us a sense of Hollywood history, from the NAACP’s insistence that black characters be portrayed with dignity to the studio’s fears of offending Southern audiences by depicting slaves as anything but cheerful laborers.

We’re reminded that censors (the Hays Office, the Catholic church’s Legion of Decency and others) loomed over all films after 1935, threatening even Rhett Butler’s famous last line. Frankly, my dears, you may not give a damn about all that while you’re laughing.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell’

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 18.

Where: Armour Street Theatre, 307 Armour St., Davidson.

Running Time: 115 minutes, one intermission.

Tickets: $23 ($22 senior, $15); discounts for advance purchase.

Details: 704-892-7953 or davidsoncommunityplayers.org.

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