The Frequency of Death! -- Killing Time
Pegasus Theatre does only one production annually. One of their "Living Black and White" plays has opened at the Eisemann Center on the first weekend of the year since 2005. So we've come to expect that show to be a doozy. Their latest, The Frequency of Death!, is good, but it never reaches the dizzying heights of dooziness. The first act is downright dozy. With a comedy/mystery, you shouldn't spend the first long hour wishing they'd shut up and get on with the killing.
Deft crafting of plot isn't a high priority for Kurt Kleinmann, founder of Pegasus, which has been doing these comedies since 1985. Kleinmann is the company's playwright, and he stars in his own plays as the main character, "world-famous detective and aspiring actor" Harry Hunsacker. As thin and silly as the 1930s B-movies they emulate, including being presented in a trademarked visual style stripped of all colors but black, white and gray, the Pegasus productions ask their casts to forgo any hints of subtlety as they broadly portray characters born of old-timey stereotypes.
The Frequency of Death! gathers its potential victims and suspects in a vintage radio studio where a show called The Mystery Challenge has them performing the script of a convoluted whodunit. Asked to solve the fictional murder case in the show-within-the-show is a panel of detectives: Kleinmann's clueless Hunsacker, accompanied by his humble and much brighter assistant Nigel Grouse (Ben Bryant); and Hunsacker's law enforcement nemesis, the blustery Lieutenant Foster (Chad Cline). The other major player in the scenario is the station's sound-effects man, Art Nichols (Ben Schroth), creating the creaking doors, footfalls and other noises from a pile of props stage left.
Most of the first half of the evening is the acting out of The Mystery Challenge and most of that hinges on the antics of the hammy radio troupe as they plow through their script at stand-up microphones. Leading lady Miriam Andrews (veteran Broadway actress Susan Mansur, who now lives here) is a rip-roaring drunk, slugging gin from a flask and falling around the stage as she flirts with the elderly sponsor, Lazslo Killian (Gordon Fox), who owns the coffee outfit that advertises on the station.
With bombshell blond Alison Stevens (Bailey Lawrence), sensible good girl Betsy Baxter (Leslie Patrick) and man-of-many-voices Walt Mitchell (Greg Phillips) doing the radio thing out front, the rest don't have much to keep them busy at the top of the play. It's up to the Orson Welles-like producer, Desmond Livingston (Christopher Curtis), to move it along by announcing that unless that night's broadcast gets better ratings, the station will be shut down. Then, live on the air, one of the players is electrocuted by an errant wire. A mysterious voice, Dr. Big, takes over the airwaves from parts unknown and warns that unless they accede to his demands, the cast and the visiting detectives will be offed one at a time. Or maybe the building will explode. Or there's possibly some poison in the coffee cups. Doesn't really matter.
Running a lot of unnecessary laps that don't reveal much of value regarding the show's overlapping mysteries, The Frequency of Death! frequently repeats jokes and overemphasizes the sort of distracting MacGuffins that make the real outcome anti-climatic. But Kleinmann isn't Agatha Christie or Daphne du Maurier. His plays are comedies first and mysteries second. "Who needs facts when you've got conjecture?" says Harry Hunsacker.
And who needs airtight plots when it's laughs you're looking for? There are lots of giggles in this show thanks to Mansur, Bryant, Kleinmann, Phillips, Cline, Curtis, Patrick and Charissa Lee, playing the Thelma Ritter plain-Jane part, who all are topnotch at knockabout comedy. They're like the character actors in old RKO films, the ones who cracked wise and pulled faces behind the suave Hollywood stars. That's part of the homage factor of this or any Pegasus show. Director Robert Bartley knows his old movies, too, and you can see in his staging of Frequency that he's worked in references to The Thin Man, Citizen Kane and maybe some classic Abbott and Costello.
Visually, this production is pretty spectacular. The multilevel Art Deco radio studio set by scenic designer Clare Floyd DeVries contains several exits upstage, good for slamming doors and for getting shape-shifting characters on and off quickly.
Costumes by Samantha Rodriguez put Mansur in a chic black velvet gown and black opera gloves, her head topped by a saucy evening hat sporting a jeweled feather that sticks up like a radio antenna. Everyone's dressed in something that tells you at a glance what their job and status are — and all in the limited black-and-white palette.
Lighting by Sam Nance achieves some dramatic cinematic fades and quick cuts. The musical underscore assembled by Kleinmann borrows from old thrillers. You'll hear a few familiar themes from Hitchcock films.
For a half-hour before curtain and again at intermission young singer Simone Gundy performs in torch singer mode, singing "Pennies from Heaven," "Stormy Weather" and other standards to set the mood.
The Frequency of Death! isn't a new play by Kleinmann. He produced it back when Pegasus had its own small home theater in Deep Ellum. Spread out on the wide stage in the Eisemann's Bank of America Theatre, its flaws of plot and its repetitious dialogue are amplified. It runs at least 30 minutes longer than it needs to and could use more big verbal and physical gags. The bit with the sound effects guy breathlessly grabbing this and that to create the noises of the radio play is funny the first four or five times — not so hilarious the 12th or 20th.
The casting of Mansur is this show's most inspired move. From the moment she tipsily careens down the stairs on her first entrance — imagine Carol Burnett as Eunice playing the pill-addled matriarch in August: Osage County and you get the idea — you can't wait to see what she'll do next. Even when she's not doing anything, she's terrific. Please, somebody, anybody (ahem, Mr. Kleinmann), write something or find something great for this lady to do. She's Auntie Mame, Follies' "Broadway Baby" and all the roles Mary Wickes ever played. Why more theaters in this town aren't clamoring for her to grace their stages — now there's a mystery.
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