XSR: Die!: Pegasus Theatre's Latest Whipsmart Comedy, in Black and White
Seeing Pegasus Theatre's one-and-only annual production of a "black-and-white play" is as much a New Year's ritual for some of us as eating a good-luck bowl of black-eyed peas. Lucky then for theatergoers who both have and have not seen a Pegasus comedy, this year's show is a delicious revival of one of company founder-playwright-star Kurt Kleinmann's best: XSR: Die! (Those letters mean "cross stage right" in theater-speak.)
It's been a decade since Pegasus last produced this one, a campy 1940s murder mystery featuring Kleinmann's hapless detective character, Harry Hunsacker, as he accidentally solves a backstage homicide and busts a Nazi spy ring. It was the final play Pegasus staged at their longtime home theater in Deep Ellum, a bijou little space that fit Kleinmann's period B-movie-inspired farces like a bespoke tux.
Now producing just one show a year at Richardson's 395-seat Bank of America theater at the Eisemann Center (with a subsequent weeklong run at Lewisville's 296-seat MCL Grand Theatre), the Pegasus style has had to evolve, going ever bigger and broader for its laughs. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. But in this play, set among the hammy cast members and devious crew of a Broadway play-within-the-play titled Box Office Poison, exaggeration is the surest form of comedy.
For the uninitiated, it takes a few moments after the curtain rises for the eyes to adjust to Kleinmann's trademarked "Living Black and White" visuals. He takes his homages to vintage movies literally, stripping every speck of color out of costumes, scenery, wigs and makeup. Everything onstage in a Pegasus play is rendered in the shimmering grays and shadowy silvers of old celluloid; the only hint of color is the occasional peek at an actor's pink tongue, though Pegasus performers are directed not to open their mouths too wide for that reason. (Notice they never touch each other, either. That gray makeup might rub off, revealing flesh tones.)
XSR: Die!, directed by Theatre Three's top comedy showman, Michael Serrecchia, is, like all of Kleinmann's black-and-whites, a silly play about silly people, some of whom die by ridiculous means. Silliest of all is this play's leading lady character, the haughty "Margo Tyler," a stage actress from the Bette Davis school of eye rolling and hip swinging. She dreams of film stardom alongside Clark Gable but is stuck in a second-rate role in Box Office Poison, whose writer, Clayton Ferrell (Clay Wheeler), won't stop adding new dialogue, and whose murdered director, Douglas Mallory (Art Kedzierski), just won't stay dead.
Playing Margo, as she did in the 2002 production, is top Dallas actress Lulu Ward, superb at giving silly characters a flinty edge. As Margo, she growls, she glares, she throws back her head and barks fabulous insults at her flamboyant co-star, "Eric Devin," whose inky toupee keeps flipping down over his eyebrows. (As Eric, actor Scott Nixon may remind you of old-timey MGM star Jack Buchanan, who played a similarly scenery-gobbling role in the great movie musical The Band Wagon.)
Eric can only take so much abuse, snarling back: "Are you finished with your makeup, Margo, or have you lost your putty knife?" She wishes aloud for the murderer to do him in, too. "But I'm too famous to die!" he says, windmilling from his wrists so vehemently, the breeze threatens to blow that wiglet right off his head.
In the wings of the rundown Broadway playhouse where Box Office Poison is in rehearsal, Margo, Eric, blonde ingénue Jean Hudson (Alex Moore), Margo's mute secretary (Charissa Lee), young stagehand Eddie (Blake Hametner), gruff stage manager Gus (Ben Schroth) and the others witness a shooting and a possible poisoning of two of their group. Except nobody's too sure who held the gun or spiked the coffee with strychnine. Enter Harry Hunsacker and his loyal assistant and "paid-by-the-hour good friend" Nigel Grouse (played again by Ben Bryant, handsome even under the chalky gray greasepaint).
As in all of Kleinmann's Hunsacker comedies, the mismatched duo tries to solve the crimes and nab the killer(s) before their nemesis, police Lieutenant Foster (Chad Cline, fuming nicely), can sort through the evidence. The fun in XSR: Die! is that the bodies keep coming back to life. Sometimes they're dead; sometimes they're just acting that way. There are doubles and double-crosses aplenty as lovable idiot Hunsacker, who bills himself as a "world-famous detective and aspiring actor," stumbles from clue to clue. (Audience members are asked to guess the killer's identity at intermish for a chance to win a T-shirt if they're right.)
If this production looks a bit more deliberately choreographed than previous Pegasus shows, it's due to the directing style of Serrecchia, a former dancer who still choreographs musicals he directs at Theatre Three and Uptown Players. He likes twirling his actors around the stage, having them freeze now and then in absurdly comic poses. That's something different for Pegasus, but the flourishes layer good new bits of physical comedy over the sometimes too-corny gags Kleinmann has written.
It is a nice-looking production, too. Dave Tenney's set design, putting a backstage area center stage, allows for lots of surprising entrances through multiple doorways. Jen Madison's costumes stay successfully within the limits of the black-and-white template, dressing Margo in some especially dramatic and glamorous silks and velvets (love that turban). Sam Nance's lighting was still spotty at the preview performance reviewed, with dark patches downstage, but that was still being tweaked before the New Year's Eve opening night. Kleinmann's sound design dips lavishly into soundtracks for Hitchcock films, with Bernard Herrmann's theme from Vertigo making several appearances, sometimes drowning out Kleinmann's own dialogue for Harry Hunsacker.
Despite its carefully proscribed parameters of style, the one area where Pegasus is sometimes weak is the acting. Kleinmann can be too subtle for his own good as Hunsacker, though Serrecchia seems to have sharpened the actor's timing with all those double and triple takes the characters do. Having Lulu Ward back in the ensemble also brings everybody's skills up a notch. She's that good at creating the big comic gestures and doing the glamour-talk of the old '40s thrillers. Also turning in a strong performance is Charissa Lee, whose Modigliani face is perfect to play a "mute" (though she has plenty to say late in the play).
With XSR: Die!, the whodunit is all right there in black and white. Making it stylish and funny is what brings out Pegasus Theatre's true colors.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.