Let's apply a little Queer Theory to the Harry Hunsacker plays.
Before beginning this instructive exercise, however, it's necessary to explain to the benighted what the Harry Hunsacker plays are. Harry is the bumbling, narcissistic hero of a series of stage whodunits performed at the Pegasus Theater in Deep Ellum. Each of these plays features the word "Death" in the title, and each is performed in a unique black-and-white style meant to mimic the look of '30s and '40s detective flicks. Hunsacker is the brainchild and alter ego of Pegasus founder and artistic director Kurt Kleinmann.
The plays are a local favorite, partly because of the startling black-and-white effect, which works particularly well from about the fifth row back. Closer up, the gray grease-paint patinas on the actors' faces that helps achieve the colorless look can be a little distracting.
Though the film-noir special effects may be the magnet that draws people to the plays initially, they are not what keep audiences coming back. As A Degree of Death!, the latest in the Hunsacker series, demonstrates, the comedic core of the plays is the relationship among Harry, his faithful sidekick Nigel Grouse, and the irascible Lt. Foster.
Harry is a dimwitted private detective and would-be actor, who, without the assistance of supercompetent Nigel, would soon come a cropper. Lt. Foster is a gumshoe just trying to do his job who finds himself perpetually stymied by Harry.
The relationships are analogous in some ways to those in P.G. Wodehouse's beloved Jeeves stories. Nigel is to Harry what Jeeves is to young Bertie Wooster. The putative servant in the relationship, Nigel is really the brains of the operation, but is too considerate to let Harry know it. He pulls on the puppet strings so gently that Harry still believes he has a free will. Lt. Foster is like Bertie's Aunt Agatha, a person of fiery temperament who seethes at the sight of so much dithering and incompetence.
In A Degree of Death!, the boys come up against a mad scientist intent on--need I say it?--world domination. Shacked up in an old mine, the techie has created a ray that turns "people of normal intelligence" into zombies who must obey his every command.
Other characters include wayfarers at a desert inn that is slated for immersion once the Hoover dam is completed.
The inn's honeysuckle-voiced proprietress is sweet on Nigel, a professional widow falls for Lt. Foster, and Harry develops a keen interest in a Hollywood scriptwriter who may be able to assist him with his acting career.
Though the first act is a bit plodding, the second picks up considerably and benefits from Bruce Colman's kitschy set design. It is also where the eternal homosexual love-triangle between Nigel, Harry, and Lt. Foster becomes more explicit.
As Queer Theory, a form of literary criticism popular on today's campuses, tells us, everyone harbors varying degrees of homosexual potential and these latent, often suppressed tendencies manifest themselves in works of drama and literature, whether their authors are conscious of it or not.
The Hunsacker plays are a perfect example. Harry himself is a "private dick," and it's no accident that the words "Harry" and "hairy" are basically interchangeable. The words "Hunsacker" and "hunsucker," meanwhile, are too similar for mere coincidence. A "hairy hunsucker" is a man of great homosexual attractions. Little wonder that he attracts Nigel like ants to a picnic.
With his deft manners, his precise diction, and his attention to detail, Nigel is a classic anal-retentive gay. Like many capable gay men in responsible positions, he feels compelled to conceal his sexual identity.
Nigel has become enthralled by Harry, and his mission is to protect Harry and advance Harry's career while adoring him from afar.
The question arises whether a man as competent, intelligent, and sensitive as Nigel could fall for someone as shallow, conceited, and ignorant as Harry. The answer is: Of course he could; it happens all the time in literature and in life.
Somerset Maugham, a gay writer, told it best in Of Human Bondage when he wrote of the sensitive medical student Philip's desperate, distracting love for the tawdry, shallow Mildred, a woman who was beneath him in every way.
It's an unreasoning love Nigel can't rationalize, but can't deny. It is no wonder that he can't explain to the inn's proprietress why her love for him can never be requited, and that bidding her adieu is "the right thing to do." Harry can't understand why Nigel rejects this sweet woman, either, and his blindness to Nigel's true feelings is a source of enduring torment to the unfortunate lover.
Meanwhile, Lt. Foster is in an equally untenable position. His love is doomed to be unrequited as well, but he doggedly sticks with it. Lt. Foster is in love with Nigel, and it is the cause of his gnawing fury that Nigel is enamored of someone as bumbling, as incompetent, and as unworthy as Harry. Lt. Foster realizes that Nigel deserves a much better man, and even Nigel himself sees this, but the ways of love are strange. We cannot choose the type of person who Fate would allow to steal our hearts. Indeed, love is a capricious little archer who shoots his darts whither he will, for his own childish amusement, and we poor mortals must suffer for his sport.
Harry, Nigel, and Lt. Foster go through life, two of them yearning for what they can never have, and the third--the cause of all this heartache--blissfully unaware of the pain he is causing as he pursues his own selfish ends. It's an unusual subtext for a lighthearted murder mystery, but one that is brought into crystal-clear focus through the exacting prism of Queer Theory.
In the Hunsacker plays, it is not murder, but love, that is the real mystery.
A Degree of Death! runs through March 9 at Pegasus Theater. Call 821-6005.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.