By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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?
And since this actor-playwright-director probably disagrees with me, it's all the more disappointing that he didn't take me to task via David Cooper, the Deadline! drama critic. I deserve a public spanking, Kurt. When writing about Pegasus Theatre in the past, I've been a very naughty boy.
Deadline! runs through March 6. Call (214) 821-6005.
Daniel Baker may have a trace of a Texas-Oklahoma accent--he grew up among the Choctaw in Southeast Oklahoma--but he is, by his own admission, a "cultural amadan" (that's "fool" in old Irish) when it comes to Irish culture. Baker is the cultural coordinator for the North Texas Irish Festival, and although he's responsible for the whole shebang of storytellers, dancers, musicians, and actors for that Fair Park throwdown, he's especially excited about importing theater artist Macdara Mac Uibh Aille (pronounced mac-dara mac-oov-allya) from Northern Ireland.
Mac Uibh Aille, a 26-year-old actor-playwright-director, is currently in Norman, Oklahoma, working on a theater piece with Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle about parallels between the Irish famine and the Trail of Tears. Mac Uibh Aille, whose family is famous in Ireland for its generations of performers, will come to Dallas for both the North Texas Irish Festival and two nights of one-acts--In the Shadow of the Glen and The Voice of the Sea--at the Bath House Cultural Center.
"We're trying to get Macdara a card so he can come back and forth whenever he wants," Daniel Baker says. "He's won awards at European festivals, but he really wants to produce and direct theater here in the U.S. The SMU students he's directing in In the Shadow of the Glen say they've never worked with someone more energetic and intense. Macdara, in turn, said what a good-looking group of kids they were. 'Their teeth! Their teeth!' he kept saying. The tea in Ireland is very, very strong, so everyone has different-colored teeth there."
Mac Uibh Aille directs SMU drama students Bonnie Cochrane, Seth Magill, Shawn Pfautch, and Brian Townes in J.M. Synge's 1902 In the Shadow of the Glen, a highly controversial proto-feminist play about a young woman, her much older husband, and the roguish traveler who comes between them. Synge's most famous play remains The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots and physical attacks on the actors in early-20th-century Dublin when audiences and fellow artists, inflamed by Irish nationalist passions, became incensed at the play's depiction of Irish patricide. Years before, Synge stirred milder controversy with In the Shadow of the Glen, which caused leading actress and Irish nationalist theater cofounder Maude Gonne (the unrequited love of another co-founder, W.B. Yeats) to resign in protest.
"A lot of people consider this play a forerunner to Waiting for Godot because it's pseudo-naturalistic," Daniel Baker notes. "Irish people got angry in the same way Southerners became angry at Tobacco Road, because they thought it portrayed them as crumbs and rubes. They said that it was depicting the wrong values. Synge complained that it was a true story told to him by a seanchai (traditional storyteller), but you could tell he'd overlaid the Greek comedy of Ephesus. In the Shadow of the Glen is a farce, a dramatic comedy. It's really about a woman bucking tradition. You could set this story in China or Mexico or India or any Third World country with a strong religious tradition."
The Voice of the Sea, meanwhile, is a 2-year-old script written by Mac Uibh Aille while on a plane to Dallas. He will also be performing this one-man show at the Bath House Cultural Center and the North Texas Irish Festival. It's a time-shifting tale of Celtic folklore and modern upheaval.
"The story concerns the residents of a small Irish island being relocated inland because their property has rich oil and mineral deposits, sort of like the Sayles film The Secret of Roan Inish," Baker notes. "As they load their belongings onto a ship, an Irish storyteller launches into these island legends. Macdara alternates that with radio reports on the progress of the residents toward the land. He plays multiple characters, including a very fetching maiden. I'm told the men will want to jump on the stage when he becomes her."
In the Shadow of the Glen and The Voice of the Sea are performed March 3 and 4. Call (214) 670-8749.