Not just black and white

A critic is always put in an awkward position when expressing dislike of any show playing at Kurt Kleinmann's Pegasus Theatre, because the kind of broad comedy they specialize in succeeds or fails almost exclusively on the personal tastes of each audience member, not any objective appraisal of the material. But his patented "black-and-white" shows--which very effectively recreate the look of a pre-Technicolor Hollywood film by coordinating makeup, costumes, and sets in blacks, whites, and various shades of gray--are especially troublesome, because the fuel they burn on is raw nostalgia.

As such, mimicry, not spoof, seems to be their modus operandi, a determination to both charm their audiences and comfort them with a reenactment of the clipped cadences, stock characters, and story contrivances that compose the alternate cinematic universe into which so many love to escape. Think about how many people say they love "old movies," and pause to consider what a very odd statement that is. It bypasses particular genres, actors, and directors to evince a fondness not so much for storytelling as atmosphere. And more than anything else, it implies a rejection of the realism that filmmakers like Kramer, Altman, and Scorsese, among others, impose on a medium that is chiefly enjoyed as a flight from reality.

And atmosphere seems to be the primary concern of Kurt Kleinmann, who's either used his "black and white" comedies as a vehicle for alter ego Harry Hunsacker, or used Hunsacker as an excuse to explore stylized performances and plot conventions, depending on how you look at it. In terms of translating the experience of movies to the stage, the murder mysteries featuring Hunsacker, the bumbling nephew of a prominent D.A. who can't decide whether he wants to be a detective or an actor, are impressive for their sheer dogged pursuit of detail. And Kleinmann, who writes these scripts himself, gets extra credit for rejecting ironic commentary and other narrative breaks. Ironically, a straight-faced embrace of this middle ground between high brow and low brow, where Nick and Nora collapse into a wild comic orgy with Bud and Lou, feels much fresher than any attempt at "post-structuring" these flicks ever could.

All that said, I have never been able to enjoy a movie simply because it's old and hammy, having had a few bad experiences with tainted cinematic pork. I avoid that stuff pretty religiously (although Bette Davis earns my blue ribbon every time). During the first two Hunsacker "black and white" comedies I saw, my experiences were identical--they slid from admiration of the sound and technical design, to amusement at the better actors' careful rendering of performance tics, to impatience somewhere at the beginning of the second act with what had deteriorated into a live Xerox of an original I hadn't had much appreciation for in the first place.

So it was with some dread that I approached Another Murder: Another Show!, the latest adventure of so-dumb-he's-sharp Hunsacker and his stoic, perennially unsung assistant, Nigel Grouse. This time, the would-be thespian and his perceptive sidekick have stumbled into rehearsals for the 25th anniversary presentation of The Walter Chappell Awards, a ceremony that's three parts Tony to one part Sara Siddens (if you've never seen All About Eve, go out and rent it to catch my reference). A stagehand is murdered when he trips a booby trap obviously meant for someone else; but is it the organized crime involvement in the awards' outcome, or simply actors' jealousy, that's causing one participant after another to drop dead?

As you might imagine, the point isn't whodunit but how Kleinmann and his fellow actors go about "solving" the mystery. Kleinmann doesn't share Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie's interest in dangling clues before you so that you actually have a chance of beating the detective to the solution if you're observant enough. Because there's no real suspense to carry you over the rough patches, the weak performances in a Hunsacker show become all the more glaring. The entire reason for these shows is how everything looks and sounds, and the performances are no exception; since all the elements are decorative, the actors must set out to design their characters as much as the technical people have designed the environment in which they perform.

Another Murder: Another Show! is easily the most inspired of the "black and white" comedies I've seen. Kleinmann and company certainly don't depart from the formula; they adhere to it with an occasionally adroit glee and uniform quality of execution that suggest that some fresh blood has been infused into the proceedings. Check the program, and sure enough, you'll find a list of Pegasus debuts here, starting off with local actress-playwright Andi Allen as director. As a performer, she was the best thing about Even Louda, Fasta, Funnya!, the last Pegasus production I reviewed, probably because she stayed so light on her feet through that show's excruciatingly self-indulgent pace. Her debut as director is equally nimble and fast-paced, never lingering too long over what Pegasus Theatre thinks is funny at the expense of what an audience might find funny--perhaps this company's biggest weakness.

Several of the cast members are also new, and they attack their celluloid archetypes with both passion and precision. As the sexy but ruthlessly honest ingenue, Gloria Stuart, Lauren Ashley Puckett coordinates her killer legs and Kate Hepburn-tinged voice into a terrific parody of acting-as-posing. Brian Gonzalez assumes the role of Hunsacker's sidekick, Nigel Grouse, and scores points with his richly theatrical voice, which he spoons out in small, effective doses every time he's called upon to do the thinking for Hunsacker (which is most of the time). Best of all, perhaps, is Eric Johnson as George Chandler, a dim-witted "chorus boy" whose self-infatuation is matched only by his tendency to crumble under a crisis. Johnson transcends mimicry to earn laughs for fully inhabiting this most fragile of acting specimens. Inside his performance is, I hope, a seed that Pegasus will plant for future productions: a commitment to finding the soul of comedy underneath its mannered surface.

Another Murder: Another Show! runs through March 7. Call 821-6005.


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