With Rehearsal for Murder! Pegasus Theatre Revives DOA Play with Killer Design
It's all there in black and white. For nearly 30 years Pegasus Theatre has been presenting Dallas writer-actor Kurt Kleinmann's comedy take-offs on old B-movie murder mysteries and Hitchcock thrillers. The shows are presented in Kleinmann's trademarked visual style that eliminates everything but shimmery shades of black, white and gray on the scenery, props, costumes and the actors' skin and hair. The effect is supposed to be like watching a come-to-life bit of vintage cinema, and it is pretty impressive to witness when the curtain goes up. Then the dialogue begins and Kleinmann's plays try, not always successfully, to achieve the "wow" factor of their unique design elements.
With Pegasus' latest revival of Rehearsal for Murder!, one of Kleinmann's 16 plays featuring hapless detective character Harry Hunsacker, the polish of the production values on the stage at the Eisemann Center in Richardson once again trumps a not-so-solid script. Scenic designer Scott Kirkham's huge set — a rundown mountain inn in Vermont with staircases, bookshelves, a rotating fireplace flickering gray-and-white flames, and spooky ancestral portraits looking down from above — is full of elegant, intriguing details. Costumes by Jen Madison put the cast of 12 in period-appropriate 1940s tweed suits, argyle sweaters and pencil skirts, in what appear to be more than 50 shades of gray. Sam Nance's lighting adds just a hint of golden glow to the forced chiaroscuro of a completely color-free atmosphere.
If only the play itself weren't as drab as the performers' crepuscular complexions. For a comedy, Rehearsal for Murder!, directed by Michael Serrecchia, is unforgivably humor-deficient. Lots of dreary blah-blah happens for the first 30 minutes of the first act, with nary a chuckle-worthy word spoken before the requisite murder occurs. Then the play feels like it never kicks into gear, idling way too far into the second half of the evening before lurching toward its silly end.
The story line stays impenetrable, as if random pages of old detective movie scripts had been shuffled together, plot holes be damned. For all the talking done by the characters, the words they speak aren't arranged in an order that elicits laughter. "I was expecting something more colorful," says Hunsacker, looking around the black-and-white inn. That's the funniest line and there are about two more hours to go after he says it. (How do you know it's the best line? It's the one printed on the back of the T-shirts sold in the lobby.)
Laying out a labyrinthine narrative about murders, ghosts, Ouija boards and nuclear secrets, this play keeps taking detours away from its central characters. Front and center, and then absent for long periods of Rehearsal, is one of Kleinmann's stock leads, frustrated police detective Lieutenant Foster (played by Chad Cline). In this play, Foster has inherited the ancient inn and its retinue of creepy servants, including a dour Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper (Terry McCracken) and a gloomy caretaker named Murdock (Chris Messersmith). Foster's arrival at the inn is interrupted when a troupe of glamorous Broadway actors bursts on the scene to rehearse a play there, though their leading man (never seen) has died mysteriously by falling off a cliff and their director (Scott Nixon) gets a knife between the shoulder blades just before intermission. Suspects in both homicides include a veteran actress (Leslie Patrick), an ingenue (Alex Moore), an interloping New York critic (Ben Schroth) and a black-hatted stranger (Gordon Fox) who might be a Russian spy.
Hoping to solve the crimes and to audition for a part in the play-within-the-play is Kleinmann's sap of a sleuth Hunsacker (played by the playwright), accompanied by his younger, smarter, smoother "paid-by-the-hour assistant" Nigel Grouse (Ben Bryant, a spiff comic actor given nothing comical to do here). The running joke in all of Kleinmann's plays is that Grouse is the brains of the duo, humbly handing Hunsacker all the info needed to unmask every killer. Then Hunsacker takes the credit, sending Lieutenant Foster into a boiling rage. And ... curtain.
The fun of some of these black-and-white comedies is how they invite the audience to play along, connecting references to the genre of movies to which Kleinmann is paying homage. Rehearsal for Murder! has some in-jokes about Hitchcock's Rebecca and to the revolving fireplace in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, but that's about it and you have to pay close attention to pick up on them. The farther we get from that era of Hollywood moviemaking, the tougher it's going to be to connect these dots. And Kleinmann's biggest weakness as a playwright is his lazy construction of the mystery aspect of his plays. It ought to be a challenge to guess the killer, but there should be some cleverer ways with clue-dropping. We're spoiled now by the brilliant writing of Sherlock on PBS, which has updated and reinvented the classic sleuth model with cracking wit and undercurrents of sexual tension between its main characters. Compared with that, Kleinmann's writing of comic mysteries isn't even Scooby-Doo quality.
Also, Kleinmann, never the best actor in his own productions, tends to underplay his few punch lines. That worked fine when Pegasus did shows in their tiny home space in Deep Ellum. (They moved out in the early 2000s because of high rent and have produced annually at the Eisemann since 2006.) On the big stage at the Eisemann Center, such subtlety is lost, or at least heavily camouflaged under that chalky makeup.
Hard to blame director Serrecchia for a lack of laughs. He knows how to stage comedies. His production of Avenue Q ran at Theatre Too for most of last year and now has transferred with its cast intact to Fort Worth's Stage West (through February 15). Avenue Q, itself a spoof of Sesame Street, is comedy gold, so Serrecchia had good stuff to work with. With the Pegasus show, however, it's harder work to impose physical comedy bits on soggy writing. He's choreographed lots of sight gags like group-gasps and melodramatic double takes that the actors, all working below their weight classes scriptwise, pull off with real snap. Thank goodness for that, because otherwise the mystery of Rehearsal for Murder! would be why it's sold as a comedy at all.
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