Hard to Detect Much Comedy in Pegasus' Another Murder Mystery

So much attention to detail goes into every show that Pegasus Theatre does in its trademarked "Living Black and White" style. Presented as a vintage piece of silver screen silliness come to life, the plays written by and starring Pegasus founder Kurt Kleinmann strip all the color from everything on the stage. Actors, costumes, props and scenery are rendered in chalky monochrome. When the curtain goes up, the visual effect can be a stunner.

Then the play starts and you wonder why, with so much artistry involved in the physical aspects of the production, didn't Kleinmann work harder on the script?

Pegasus does one of these black-and-whites every year. Some are better than others, but none are as good as they should be. The current production, Another Murder, Another Show!, is a rerun from 1998 of one of the weakest among Kleinmann's 16 comedies starring the character he portrays, "world famous detective and aspiring actor" Harry Hunsacker. In this one, now running at Richardson's Eisemann Center, Harry stumbles into the wrong theater just before a big awards ceremony and helps solve the murder of a stagehand. We never see the stagehand character; his killing happens offstage, a low-stakes way of setting up a two-hours-and-change mystery.

Kleinmann uses the same basic template for his plays. His Hunsacker persona is an idiot, the blithering, blathering kind. The character only gets credit for solving homicides because his much brighter "good friend and paid employee" Nigel Grouse (Ben Bryant, working at half speed) quietly feeds him the clues and takes no credit. Nemesis police detective Lt. Foster (Chad Cline) fusses and fumes the way Inspector Lestrade does when Sherlock Holmes out-thinks him. Foster is always two steps behind Harry, who's nine steps behind unsung hero Nigel.

The running gag in all the black-and-white plays is that old Harry Hunsacker is desperate to break into show business. He'll step over a corpse to hand a producer his headshot. Kleinmann's plays needle the neediness of unemployed thespians with lots of retro-Hollywood references to the bloated egos of good-looking leading men and the loose morals of blond chorines. In Another Murder someone remarks that a backstage murder is unusual because actors usually settle their differences using agents, not firearms.

There is no stereotype too dumb to exploit in Kleinmann's oeuvre. Starlets are buxom airheads. Producers are on the prowl for willing starlets. Male ingenues are brainless, too, and in any theatrical troupe, the stage manager, like the butler in an Agatha Christie novel, is always the first suspect but rarely the murderer.

In Another Murder, Another Show!, Hunsacker and Nigel don a series of bad disguises as Harry tries to both solve the crime and win one of the "Wally Awards" at the ceremony being postponed by the pileup of bodies. (After the stagehand's death, two more people turn toes up — or do they?) Harry wears a cape and pretends to be Sherlock. He puts on a white dinner jacket and a chop suey accent we now consider racist and offensive when he's Charlie Chan. As Nick Charles (yes, the references are that old), he's costumed in a bathrobe (shouldn't it be a smoking jacket?) and holds a martini glass. Nigel, in the only really funny bit, comes on in hideous drag as Nick's elegant wife, Nora. (Ben Bryant is so much better than this when he's working at Ochre House theater in tasty scripts by Matthew Posey.)

For farce to be funny, it needs to move and for most of Another Murder, the actors stand still and don't do a lot. Director Michael Serrecchia, so imaginative when he's staging musicals, allows this show to remain static for long stretches as Kleinmann's pages-long speeches go on and on and on. Worst at hitting the punchlines with any pizzazz? Kleinmann, whose sluggish timing and mumbling delivery kill the jokes he wrote for the character he plays.

What laughs there are come from the other actors, all solid pros, doing their level bests to add luster to dull dialogue. Ben Schroth gets away with imitating the voice of Peter Lorre as a creepy character named Rolfe Sedan. Jarratt Calvert has sharp comic moments as ditzy dancer George. Alex Moore purrs nicely as voracious chorus girl Gloria. Leslie Patrick, as the conniving tap-dancer Mary, gets the rhythms of old movie patois just right, as if she's studied Ginger Rogers in Stage Door. As awards show director Leon Belasco, actor Art Kedzierski has to spew endless exposition and he manages to make it amusing. Chris Messersmith plays an angry gangster who gets to say, on the set of the awards presentation, there's "no statuette of limitations" on certain crimes. Character Sheila Rose is the Margaret Dumont character named Mrs. Rice, a snooty society dame suspected of murder. (Kleinmann has Hunsacker say, "Come on, Rice, spill the beans." That's the level of comedy we're talking here.)

The production elements are fine, with show-with-the-show scenery by Scott Kirkham that combines circles and triangles in an art deco motif that reflects the right period. Costumes by Samantha Rodriguez and Hank Henry use all the hues on the limited black, white and gray palette, with flashes of geometric patterns that complement the set pieces.

It's all built beautifully, aside from the script itself. Kleinmann's play is so confusing as it keeps doubling back on itself that by the time the third character is killed, you will have forgotten who he was in the first place. The big reveal at the end, where Nigel and Harry pin down the right perpetrator by running through all the convoluted plot points, goes on for a painfully unfunny 15 minutes.

Waiting for this show to end, that's murder.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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