For a few minutes toward the end of Cross Stage Right: Die! at the Pegasus Theatre, bumbling detective Harry Hunsacker stops bumbling. Under a hypnotic spell cast by his loyal and much smarter assistant, Nigel Grouse (played by Tim Honnoll), Harry suddenly begins to think he's the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes. He seizes on the tiniest clues, susses out the suspects and saves the world from Nazi domination. Just in time, too.
As written and acted by Pegasus' maestro Kurt Kleinmann, Harry's about-face, from densa to Mensa, is full-out hilarious. Kleinmann knows how to underplay the comedy, sometimes just letting his coal-black eyebrows work for the laugh. So seeing him take charge and think on his feet is a tasty switch.
The turn also serves to wrap things up efficiently in a two-acter that takes its time meandering through a very silly plot about a rash of backstage murders in Manhattan in 1942. It helps that the cast is good right down to the smallest roles, and the directing by Spencer Prokop is peppy and clever. Keeps things clicking during the slower moments of Act 1, as the crazy plotlines are being spun out every which way. Things gel in Act 2. The pace quickens and all those plot threads tie up neatly, just like in an old Alan Ladd detective movie.
Like the dozen or so other plays in the Kleinmann/Hunsacker oeuvre--all performed on gray-and-white sets by actors camouflaged with gray makeup and silvery costumes--Cross Stage Right: Die! is a comic homage to all the skirts and palookas who populated less-than-stellar B-movie whodunits back in the days of ration cards and victory gardens. This play also honors the beloved show-business trio of Howard, Howard and Fine, better known as the Three Stooges, starting with the opening film clip (a staple of the black-and-white plays at Pegasus) introducing a psychiatrist character named "Dr. Howard Fine."
Nyuk nyuk, who's there? Moe? Mo' Stooge jokes, please.
Leading the cast-within-the-cast in this comic mystery is snooty actress Margo Tyler (played with a Bette Davis moue by Lulu Ward). Margo is the leading lady in the play Box Office Poison, whose rehearsals on Broadway have been interrupted by the intrusion of a few untimely corpses. Margo is a gorgeous mess, always operating at full hissy and pitching noisy fits over her costumes and the questionable acting ability of her wussy leading man, Eric Devin (Marc Rouse), an ego hound whose toupee is so big it should get its own billing.
Rounding out the cast is beleaguered playwright Clayton Farrell (Daniel R. States), bouncy stagehand Eddie Wilson (James Gilbert), maniacal director Douglas Mallory (David Larson), actress-with-a-secret Jean Hudson (Faith Taylor), Lulu's mute dresser Rosemary (Leslie Patrick) and kindly old stagehand Gus (Ben Schroth), whose dialogue has him asking "Who wants coffee?" in increasingly sinister ways.
Also on hand is Hunsacker's archenemy, Lieutenant Foster (A. Raymond Banda), a scowling fireplug in a gray fedora. In all the black-and-white plays, Foster's attempts at genuine police work inevitably are foiled by Hunsacker, who, as a "world-famous detective and aspiring actor," somehow stumbles onto just the right bits of evidence lying right under Foster's nose.
In Cross Stage Right, Hunsacker's only on the scene because he and Grouse have arrived at the wrong theater for an acting audition. When the bad guy starts knocking off the cast, they're locked in with the suspects, forcing Foster reluctantly to accept Hunsacker's help.
Like those scratchy old B-movies, Kleinmann's Hunsacker plays all follow a pretty simple formula. But in setting his comedies in the 1940s, he's able to mine a rich vein of old showbiz references and guarantee that the material will never get stale (Cross Stage Right: Die! premiered 15 years ago, and this latest production is a revival of a revival from about 1997). By basing his characters on familiar old movie stereotypes--the oversexed starlet, the nefarious Nazi spy, the vain male ingenue--he gets his movie-savvy audience in on the joke right from the start.
Kleinmann the writer also has a terrific ear for how the old rat-a-tat film noir dialogue sounds, giving his lines a special twist that comments on the specific rhythms and makes them funny. "Don't play dumb with me, Eddie," Hunsacker barks at a suspect. "I can beat you at that game any day!"
Broadway "he-man" Eric Devin tries to make nice with his leading lady backstage, crooning, "Margo, you are the closest thing to a woman I care about."
And Hunsacker pays tribute to his assistant, Nigel Grouse, by calling him "the best friend money can buy."
Act 2 of Cross Stage Right tosses around more tried-and-true B-movie elements like séances, mummy's curses, secret identities (keep your eyes on that mute) and the old unloaded gun switcheroo. Characters call each other "kiddo" and "Skeezix." And after buckets of coffee have been handed out by that kindly old stage manager (don't you believe it), somebody finally wakes up and smells it.
As a continuing franchise, Kleinmann's black-and-white plays have a sameness that just keeps on working. Each title ends with an exclamation point, each play ends with the good guys winning and the ingenue giving shy Harry a little kiss. They may be thin on plot, these plays, but they always deliver the comedy goods.
The current group of actors at Pegasus is especially good and includes repeaters from previous installments of the Hunsacker mysteries. Best among them is Lulu Ward, a feisty leading lady who, in another era, might have gone shoulderpad-to-shoulderpad with a Joan Crawford or an Ida Lupino. Ward acts with her eyes, her voice, her hip joints, her fingernails. Even masked under all that ghostly gray makeup, Ward's cheekbones speak volumes on their own. Some of her actual line readings are so delicious, they should come à la mode. This Little Lulu really is one.
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