Because Dallas keeps lining up for Kurt Kleinmann's monochromatic comedies

Maybe it's because the show is set in the ultra-glamorous, intrigue-ridden world of journalism. Or maybe because there's a glaringly unnecessary subplot about clairvoyance and ghost sightings. Or perhaps my cold critical heart has begun to thaw and leak watery pink juice.

For whatever reason, the latest Pegasus Theatre comedy Deadline!, a 10-year-old Kurt Kleinmann script dusted off and re-presented as part of the theater's "All Dallas Playwrights Season," is more enjoyable than what I've come to expect from Kleinmann's "black and white" series. If you've spent even one year familiarizing yourself with the Dallas theater scene during the last 14 seasons, you know that these technically strenuous shows are Kleinmann's invention--a black-white-gray coordination of sets, costumes, lacquered-on makeup, and lacquered-on actorly mannerisms designed to re-create the look of films from the '30s and '40s.

They are often, though not exclusively, the kiosks from which artistic director-actor-writer Kleinmann peddles his Harry Hunsacker stories, in which an aspiring actor turned detective and his bright-enough-for-both-of-them assistant Nigel Grouse attempt to solve the mystery of why Kleinmann has clung to this format for so long. One production may be faster-paced, better timed, and more skillfully acted, but by curtain call, you realize they have all been dispensing the same sugar-laced but not especially flavorful desserts from the Pegasus cart. You don't want to hurt the server's feelings--the offerings are often impressively decorated--but there's something about knowing exactly how these artfully presented pastries are going to taste that makes you feel like somebody is fooling himself. You can admire frosting in swirls, loops, or little teardrop-shaped dollops, but it's still empty calories.

Of course, this complaint is mostly the sound of a critic banging his head against a wall, because a show like Deadline!, a Harry Hunsacker mystery set at a big-city newspaper, is really critic-proof: The stuff pundits complain about in these shows is usually the reason people want to see them.

That hasn't stopped a couple of us in town from lobbing complaints at the repetitious nature of black-and-white shows specifically and Pegasus Theatre comedy in general. Once Kleinmann the playwright introduces nebbishy drama critic David Cooper (Aaron Friedman) as one in his journalistic cast of Deadline! characters, the masochist in me hoped that Kleinmann would seize the opportunity to bang his critics' heads against a wall. Well-orchestrated onstage revenge tastes sweet even when it's aimed in your direction, and Kleinmann drops hints that he's in the mood to settle some scores. One character asks Cooper what show he's writing about, and the whiny-voiced, four-eyed pundit answers, "A comedy. The audience laughed all the way through it. It was so annoying."

It's difficult to imagine a more inspired force majeure than the animus of a stage artist toward a stage critic, but sadly, that's the closest the character David Cooper comes to getting cuffed around the ears. Indeed, he becomes the one loose end in a show that manages to untangle a writhing viper's nest of haunted pasts and nefarious deeds. You wonder whether Kleinmann didn't introduce Cooper with the intention of satirizing him but somewhere along the line lost his nerve.

The rest of Deadline! goes off fleetly and amiably enough with a cast of newspaper types introduced to mass audiences by the likes of Billy Wilder and Frank Capra. There's the society columnist (Shannon Woelk) aching to write investigative journalism; the blustery city editor (A. Raymond Banda) who steals credits from struggling writers; and the cravenly opportunistic journalist (Stephen Clifton) who jumps to a rival newspaper, but not before he compromises himself in the pursuit of a Pulitzer. Along with rising movie star Ann Devlyn (Leslie Patrick), a woman given to "memory attacks" that eventually turn prophetic, they are drawn into a homicidal web being investigated by Hunsacker (Kleinmann) and Grouse (Dan Cunningham).

On a relative scale of Pegasus quality, director Steven Shayle Rhodes makes sure Deadline! meets its responsibilities with some delightful comic turns, especially from the women. Blinding blonde Patrick and raven brunette Woelk bring the most unself-conscious mimicry to their roles, thus evolving from mere mimics to pale flesh incarnations of those peculiar celluloid women of 1937 (the year the play is set). I wanted to see more of Woelk after her brief but sparkling work in last year's Pegasus hit Reefer Madness, and her fluid brassiness here fulfills that promise.

As Hunsacker, Kleinmann prompts scattered laughter, but he remains a performer who doesn't always seem comfortable on stage. Banda stomps and bullies successfully as the hard-drinking editor, but a role performed entirely in this key starts to gnaw on your nerves after a while.

Diverting and sometimes charming though Deadline! is, yet another black-and-white Harry Hunsacker comedy in which Kleinmann bumbles and stumbles in flour makeup begs the question "Why?" Kleinmann the playwright is certainly in a unique position to see his scripts produced on his own stage, and he's provided laudable opportunities for other Dallas scribes to do so, so why doesn't he spread his own wings a little instead of trying to prove ad nauseam that he has the slang, the situations, and the sensibilities of World War II-era cinema down pat?

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