Theatre Three Makes Muddled Mystery of The Art of Murder; Project X Hones Powerful Diamond Dick

Ashton McClearin, Jordan Willis, Erica Harte and Michael Serrecchia star in Theatre Three's The Art of Murder, a drama that shoots itself in the foot.
Jeffrey Schmidt

There's only one mystery in Theatre Three's latest, The Art of Murder, and that is how it ever made it onto a professional stage. Sans suspense but with beaucoup bits of flat, witless writing, the two-act play is the work of Joe DiPietro, perpetrator of the dreckola musical I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, which T3 foists upon its audience every winter. About DiPietro's nonmusical: I Hate It, It's Awful, Now Change Your Tickets to Something Better Elsewhere. (Such as Diamond Dick, reviewed below.)

Murder, which is just that to sit through, wants to be Wait until Dark, but it never engages beyond "wait until intermission," and that can't come soon enough.

Its setup has Jack, an artist of some renown (played as a poncy loon by a doughy Jordan Willis), and bitchy artist-wife Annie (bland Ashton McClearin) inviting Jack's fey agent (Michael Serrecchia, a fine local director whose acting is less so) to their country house for dinner. Thirty minutes into the first act, something should be afoot in this scenario, but no, it's ages before the murder plot finally boots up. It's a weakly conceived plan to make Jack's crappy abstract paintings worth more following his, or someone else's, demise. Scooby Doo solved more complex crimes.


Tulsa race riots

The Art of Murder continues through May 12 at Theatre Three in The Quadrangle. Call 214-871-3300. Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 continues through April 21 at The Green Zone (161 Riveredge Drive). Tickets are $10 at the door or through La Cage aux Folles continues through April 22 at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Call 214-631-2787.

Dinner is alluded to but never consumed, though there is much masticating of scenery and swilling of fake alcohol from which no one gets fake-drunk. The couple's young Irish maid, played with grim determination by good actress Erica Harte, zips in and out as the story's red-bloused red herring. She keeps mentioning in bold letters that she has a degree in chemistry. That will make you fantasize about the poisons they might all consume, and soon, so that you can hie your way out of this toxic turkey.

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In his preshow welcome at the preview performance reviewed, director Terry Dobson dared the audience to figure out the plot before the second act. He could safely offer a million-dollar prize because he'd never have to pay out. There is no plot, no puzzle to solve. DiPietro tries a few double crosses about who wants to murder whom and why — something about the worth of artists and the worthlessness of agents and critics — but because there's not a protagonist to root for among three unlikable main characters, there's nothing at stake. Instead of a whodunit, it's a "who cares?"­

Following two excellent shows — the Aaron Sorkin play The Farnsworth Invention and, downstairs in Theatre Too, a solid production of Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts, which played to sold-out houses — Theatre Three is back to its old tricks with The Art of Murder. Soggy script, saggy direction, lazy acting and piss-poor technical details abound. Pity McClearin, dressed by costumer Bruce Coleman in unflattering jeans and a ghastly teal cardigan that hugs her muffin top. On the set by designer Jeffrey Schmidt, a centerpiece contraption meant to be high-strung artist Jack's high-tech sensory deprivation tank (remember those?) looks like an old Norge deep freeze, the kind your grandparents kept in their garage and filled with catfish and pot pies.

With its lack of suspense and dull commentary about the value of modern art, this play is dead on arrival.

As a highly stylized portrait of racial conflict escalated to tragedy, Project X's world premiere of Diamond Dick: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 is a tough, powerful drama. The tensions around today's Trayvon Martin case are minor compared with what happened between whites and blacks in Tulsa over a three-day period in the spring of 1921. Erik Ehn's fact-based play blends poetic dialogue, original music, film, shadows and percussive movement in its depiction of one of America's saddest episodes of violence and bigotry.

A young shoeshine man, Dick Rowland (played by Walter White), is wrongly accused of assaulting a white girl (Jenni Pittman). When the Tulsa newspaper runs a page-one headline announcing the upcoming lynching of "Diamond Dick," a group of African Americans gathers to protest and to try to save his life. There are riots, vigilante shootings by whites and an outsized, trigger-happy response by the National Guard. Some 300 blacks are killed, thousands more arrested. Black homes, businesses, theaters and churches are burned.

Director Raphael Parry, who has staged other Ehn plays at Undermain Theatre, has brought together a fine ensemble of actors for this piece, part of the writer's 17-play series Soulographie: Our Genocides. Playing multiple characters are Rhonda Boutté, Dennis Raveneau, Jamal Sterling, Stormi Demerson and Jeffrey Schmidt (who also designed and constructed the simple but visually stunning scenery). Live blues guitar and deep-voiced narration are provided by actor-musician Newton Pittman. Dallas actors Marcus Mauldin, T.A. Taylor, Erik Jenkins and Victoria Meeks are among those seen in filmed vignettes.

Somehow Diamond Dick telescopes its epic story into a brisk 75 minutes. Project X hopes to take the play to New York in November to be performed in a 24-hour marathon with the other parts of Ehn's cycle dramatizing stories of genocide.

"We came to Oklahoma for freedom," says one of the testimonials by a black character in the play. "We followed the Indians on the Trail of Tears." From this beautifully rendered production, a little-remembered chapter of American history is retold to teach new lessons in tolerance.

From serious stuff to pure fluff with the Broadway tour of the Jerry Herman musical La Cage aux Folles at Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park one more weekend. Based on a movie that was based on another, better movie, the tuneful comedy set on the French Riviera brings movie and TV star George Hamilton and his perma-tan to town.

Known more for his bronze complexion than his acting chops, Hamilton is a charming old fellow, now 72 and consigned to doing dance numbers from the seated position. Playing the elder half of a gay couple who operate a louche cabaret, Hamilton shows off blinding white teeth when he squeezes smiles from between cheeks plumped with goat placenta, or whatever injected substance keeps his face so preternaturally puffed.

His co-star, Christopher Sieber, playing the cross-dressing diva "Zaza," does all the heavy lifting in the show. He's marvelous, a big singer and crackerjack comic actor whose personality is the production's goat placenta, injecting freshness where needed.

It feels like a scaled-down tour. The band is small and instead of a bevy of dancing "Cagelles" (some dudes, some dames), this production has only six. Not so much pretty "birds of a feather," this bunch. More like a small flock of knock-kneed, out-of-sync hoofers in heavy pancake.

The show is what it is — just a little pale around the edges this time around, at least when the Bronzed One isn't onstage.

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