The Frequency of Death
Last Sunday night's production of The Frequency of Death at Pegasus Theatre drew a healthy crowd when you consider its performance time, and as I cast my snooping journalist's ears around the place to gather scraps of conversation, I surmised that many of these people were either first-time or very infrequent playgoers. It should be no surprise that Pegasus' annual "black and white" production--with costumes, sets, and makeup carefully coordinated in various shades of gray, black, and white to re-create the look of a film from the 1930s or '40s--represents a kind of missionary outreach to those who wouldn't normally try something new in their entertainment diet. I could be a snottily effete critic and launch a tirade about philistines flocking to a play designed to help them forget they're watching a play, but a recent adjustment in my daily dosage has allowed me to be magnanimous about these matters, be it ivory pancake makeup or gratuitous frontal nudity. If it moves seats, then use it. And maybe all those people who profess to love "old movies" (a strange category to express appreciation for; I prefer "good movies") will figure out that their attention spans have been honed by the static, talky, two-camera makeup of 1930s flicks so they can enjoy static, talky live theater, including shows where the actors don't look like they've been hit by Gold Medal delivery trucks.
Unfortunately, these stylized comedy mysteries, written by Pegasus artistic director Kurt Kleinmann as vehicles for himself in the role of bumbling private dick Harry Hunsacker, vary widely in quality. "This is going to be great," whispered one man to his female companion, squeezing her hand as the lights went down, newcomers both, I think. Unfortunately, as the evening wore on, the audience remained cadaver-silent and grew, as the undead and the unentertained who paid money for entertainment tend to, restless and a little irritable. I prayed for the couple who, the next time perusing "nightlife" listings in their favorite local weekly, will speed past the stage schedules and give their money to Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey instead. I'm tempted to compare The Frequency of Death to a deflowering experience so dull that you glue shut your fly, but that's not fair. Even the lousiest lay has the attraction of animal unpretentiousness. Bluntly put, this latest Harry Hunsacker show pretends to be funny, and it isn't--at least, for 90 percent of the time. There's quite a bit of talent onstage, and the designers have corralled their efforts impressively. Yet director Louise Grams (making her Pegasus debut here) has not coached the performers into the kind of clipped, gunfire-exchange rhythms that can make contrived lines seem droll, and Kleinmann has not made that extra effort to write dialogue that uncovers the humor in these scenes. Kleinmann has scratched some truly original farcical bits from his noggin in the 16 years that Pegasus Theatre has galloped along on the Dallas scene, but this debut production of The Frequency of Death, set in a 1937 radio station studio with the call letters WKIL, is all setup and no payoff.
Harry Hunsacker, who has a Lucy-like lust to break into show biz, is invited to appear as a judge on the radio show The Mystery Challenge, in which the actors narrate a murder and then audience and judge are asked to solve the killer's identity. Alongside Hunsacker is his assistant Nigel Grouse (Pat Watson, who in his makeup eerily resembles a scowling Jimmy Stewart), the man who's always responsible for truly solving the case while giving credit to Hunsacker. "We take our comedy seriously!" is the Pegasus slogan, but Kleinmann has not bothered to flesh out the relationship between Grouse and Hunsacker with any kind of back-story. There's no effort to explain why Grouse is content with all the work and none of the credit. It's just a conceit, a device, rather than a part of the characterizations that would anchor the comedy to something genuine. Needless to say, Grouse has to work overtime when Kleinmann the playwright introduces some kind of supernatural arch-nemesis named Mr. Big, who has the inexplicable power to resemble anyone (or, as the script speciously delineates, the power to make people perceive he resembles anyone of his choice). And a large cast of types, including the ingénue (Leslie Patrick), the lush actress (Allyn Carrell), and the demanding radio show sponsor (Milton Stolz), are sent to scurry around the stage to little evident purpose.
The Frequency of Death did get one big laugh, and I hope Kleinmann and director Louise Grams take it as instruction. The murder mystery play inside The Mystery Challenge begins to go on too long between coffee spots. Leslie Patrick as the lovely young actress is booted into the role of the grandmother, and suddenly she and sound effects man Art (Tim Honnoll) are forced to race through the broadcast killing, and in the process create confusion over whether the method was shooting, stabbing, or cyanide. Patrick, doing a hilarious little-old-lady voice that belies her purse-lipped, childlike face, alternates from "Please don't shoot me!" to "Wait, put down that knife!" to "Oh, please don't make me drink that poison!" as Honnoll delivers a hailstorm of conflicting noises in an attempt at damage control, all while the seconds tick down to an announcement from the sponsor. Patrick's the best thing in the show, but she's given little to do and dies too early in the production. Apparently, The Frequency of Death refers both to the number of lines that are delivered stillborn and to the heedlessness with which this show picks off its best players.
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