Gray Matter

The laughs are all there in black and white in It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder!, Pegagus Theatre's stylish, fast-paced chiaroscuro comedy written by and starring Kurt Kleinmann. Twelfth in a series of satirical mysteries featuring lovably bumbling detective Harry Hunsacker (played by Kleinmann), this one gets a holiday twist with a frothy plot set in a department store populated with oddballs who might have popped out of a Ritz Brothers movie.

The conceit of Kleinmann's color-free plays is to duplicate in 3-D the look of black-and-white 1930s Hollywood B-flicks. It's Beginning... even begins with a clever movie-style credit sequence introducing the actors. Then the curtain rises on Jim Cox's meticulously designed, silvery gray Art Deco set--reminiscent of the selling floor on the Britcom Are You Being Served--and the pinging elevator doors disgorge actors done up in steel-gray costumes (by Ashley Steele no less) and sporting pallid gray faces and chalked-up hands. The only hint of color onstage is the occasional glimpse of an actor's rosy tongue.

Kleinmann's script delightfully spoofs the convoluted plots and snappy dialogue of old film noir classics like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, those movies where rich dames are always one platform heel ahead of the flatfoots and the final act concludes with some poor schmo gettin' pumped full o' hot lead.

The rich dame in this play is aptly named Eve Grayson (Lulu Ward), bitch-queen owner of the Grayson & Wayne department store and possessor of a full-tilt libido. Swaggering like Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce drag, Eve strikes terror in her underlings. They include prissy store manager Nelson Quincy (Steven-Shayle Rhodes), a bald-pated majordomo who proudly declares, "I try to know as little as possible about as many things as I can"; store detective Frank Kelly (Marc Rouse), the resident flatfoot and former crooked cop now prowling the halls as an angry martinet; and high-spirited gift-wrapper Elwood Johnson (Nathan McCoy), a Doodles Weaver-y dweeb who flinches and contorts his face wildly whenever the snooty boss ogles him with her Bette Davis eyes.

Three store Santas have been found boots-up at Grayson's--could the villain be a serial killer or the ghost who haunts the fur vaults?--and store dick Kelly, operating under a toupee only Marv Albert would love, is on the case. Enter Harry Hunsacker, self-described "world-famous detective and aspiring actor," and his "paid-by-the-hour assistant" Nigel Grouse (Tim Honnoll). They've stopped by the store to pick up last-minute gifts, but soon get wrapped up in solving the crimes.

Hunsacker's no Sam Spade. The play's best joke is that his brain's as thick as his waistline. Kleinmann plays him to a turn, with well-timed pauses and arches of coal-black eyebrows that punctuate numerous blustery double takes. Hunsacker leaves the real thinking up to Grouse, saying, "If I was half as smart as Nigel, I'd be twice as smart as I am."

The B-plots in this well-executed comedy have a swooning ingenue (Leslie Patrick) waiting for a proposal from her beau (James Gilbert) and an undercover cop (A. Raymond Banda) posing as Santa trying to nick the murder suspect before an undercover reporter (Dona Safran) can blow the lid off the story in print. And what about that strange bearded character in the basement who just might be the real deal, living in exile from the North Pole? Will he grant Harry's Christmas wishes?

Before you can say ho-ho-homicide, Hunsacker and company have the case solved, tying up all the silliest loose ends in silvery tinsel and ribbon just before the cinematic snowflakes start to fall.

It's all as light as whipped cream, thanks to the excellent cast--especially Kleinmann, who has Jackie Gleason's away-we-go grace and jowls that shake like a Jell-O mold--and the seamless direction of veteran Dallas actor-director Spencer Prokop. Timing's the key in a production like this. With actors rushing on and off at breakneck pace and those tricky elevator doors to deal with (one of the funniest running gags concerns the never-seen elevator-operating twins, Jimmy and Timmy), one false move could send a gag plunging to thudsville. Never happens here. Prokop keeps this farce aloft at all times, even inserting comic pauses and musical cues that echo film technique and keep a guffawing audience from missing any dialogue.

Small theaters such as Pegasus pray for a successful franchise like Kleinmann's exclamation-pointed black-and-white plays (the next one, XSR:Die!, opens in February). Done well, a series like this develops a following that fills the seats for each new title. In Kleinmann's case, his fans have been rewarded by watching his writing and acting grow stronger over the years. He's writing smarter plays now, knowing that the audience is in on the joke. If at times he gets schmaltzy, so what? So did those old movies.

It's Beginning... may be Kleinmann's best yet, lifted by the carefully executed set (loved those elevators), costumes, lighting and sound, and a cast that's energetic, attractive (Lulu Ward is a Lulu and a half) and consistent in keeping up the specific tone of period parody.

As always, the script shows off Kleinmann's devotion to old movies, deliciously integrating homages to Sunset Blvd., Miracle on 34th Street and the gee-willickers camaraderie of The Bowery Boys. His secondary characters clearly are drawn from the B-movie résumés of the great (and, sadly, now nearly forgotten) fast-talking, slow-burning character actors Franklin Pangborn, Billy DeWolfe, Thelma Ritter and Patsy Kelly.

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Murder! is an original, low-tech tribute to an era when the spiffy dialogue and great performances were more colorful than the movies themselves.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner