Terror-bly funny

Without actress Trista Wyly, the new show at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre would be just another ho-hum, pleasant little trifle. High art isn't this venue's specialty. Here it's low-brow comedy and melodrama most of the year, with the audience invited to toss popcorn at hissing villains and to sing old-timey camp songs during intermission. Oodles of fun, if you're either 89 or 9, which seem to be the typical ages for ticketholders at this 145-seat playhouse in the corner of a Mockingbird Lane shopping center.

But Pocket's trying something new with the period comedy It's a Scream! Unlike many of this theater's productions, this one is polished and well-acted. They don't even provide any popcorn for throwing at the actors.

Even better, director Andy Long wisely has cast Wyly in one of the leads and simply by doing that, the whole affair is elevated to something much higher of brow and more stylish.

Speaking of brows, Wyly goes for a middle one. Middle of her face. She sports precisely one, a thin coal-black line painted across the bridge of her pert little nose, making what is otherwise a pretty mug into a comedic fright mask. In the play--a comedy-mystery by David DeBoy about a has-been moviemaker who bears a strong resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock--Wyly plays Maria Yocknester, a spooky housekeeper, sort of a pre-menopausal Frau Blücher. Dressed in head-to-toe black, with a white lightning bolt zigzagging toward the black bun pulled tight at the back of her head, Wyly's character is a combination majordomo and major pain in the keister for one Alexander Moreau (played by David H.M. Lambert), the director yearning to make a comeback at the studio that's about to fire him.

The script is pretty slight stuff, full of punishing puns and exaggerated characters, none more so than Wyly's Maria. But what could be played merely as a cliché horror show crone is made by Wyly into a lesson in how to overcome a playwright's C-level concept. Every snap of her head, every shriek, every entrance and exit is precisely timed and perfectly executed. The audience loves every crazy inch of Maria because of Wyly's expertise at playing her right to the edge of overacting without stumbling into something unpleasantly broad. Every scene she is in becomes funnier for her smart acting choices.

The rest of the five-member cast pretty much breathes Wyly's smoke through two hours and three short acts of a plot right out of an Abbott and Costello movie. The play is set in the 1950s at a time when the old Hollywood studio system is falling apart and the new TV industry threatens the box office. The young studio head, Mr. Pierce (Russell Johnson), pays a call at Moreau's gothic mansion to lower the boom on the director's career. No more fright flicks, Pierce tells Moreau.

But the old man isn't about to go quietly. He regales Pierce with a lecture on the art of moviemaking and makes a deal with him: If Moreau can throw a real scare into Pierce before midnight, the exec has to greenlight another Moreau picture.

What follows is predictable (Pierce gets his scare) but entertaining. Joining the characters late in the action is bubbly starlet Elizabeth "Lizzie" Borden (played by Shannon Hathaway). She assists in a séance and accidentally summons up some "real" spirits who speak through her in voices otherworldly and evil. Or as Wyly's Maria describes them, "eee-voool."

After a slapstick-heavy first act, the second and third develop the mystery of how Moreau will succeed at spooking Pierce. Like that episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Buddy, Sally and Laura disappear one by one from the haunted cabin, leaving Rob Petrie shivering alone, It's a Scream! offs its characters until only Pierce remains, curled in the fetal position, begging for mercy. Some pretty nifty visual tricks serve to discombobulate Pierce and the audience, thanks to a kicky set design by Rodney Dobbs that exceeds PST's usual low-budget technical standards.

Throughout, it's Wyly we want more of. Her comic foil is Moreau's brick-headed chauffeur, Maxie (Erik Knapp, ably chewing every piece of scenery). "You know vhat iz gargoyle?" Maria asks Maxie in her Transylvanian accent. "Why sure!" he says. "Listerine, Lavoris..."

Like that, it goes, with groaner jokes mixed up with sight gags. Maxie, lacking a glass to drink from, elaborately mixes a Scotch and soda in his mouth. Twice. Pierce and Maxie creep up on a ghost in a closet using the low-kneed tiptoeing sneak-walk right out of cartoons.

It's a Scream! is a little gray at the temples, a throwback to vintage Saturday afternoon B-movies. An older crowd will click into the script's many references to 1950s screen stars, including Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe (the Lizzie character wears a dress identical to the white number in The Seven-Year Itch). Younger theatergoers might not nod as knowingly at mentions of Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr., or laugh at digs about the cross-dressing antics of Uncle Miltie Berle.

But for two hours of escapist dinner theater (ask your grandparents about their dates to the Country Dinner Playhouse back in the day), It's a Scream! is a hoot and a howl. At Pocket, the audience sits at tables and booths where noshing is allowed during the show. OK, the menu is about a half-step up from a gas station food mart (though the nachos aren't half bad), but they do sell decent selections of beer and wine. And you don't need dessert as long as you're getting the delicious Miss Wyly in a performance that for her is a piece of cake. Or as her Maria Yocknester would describe it, "Deffil's foooood."

More about Trista Wyly, the actress who's the best reason to buy tickets to Pocket Sandwich Theatre's It's a Scream! She's someone more theatergoers (and directors) should get to know.

Wyly, 32, moved to Dallas three years ago after living for a year in Chicago, where she studied the acting style known as "the Meisner technique." The University of Texas at Arlington grad has a BFA in theater and supports her acting career with a day job working at Hooters corporate headquarters.

Her first role on a Dallas stage was at Pocket and she remains loyal to them, acting in several shows a year despite the next-to-nothing pay. She's also worked at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, where she had a small but memorable role as the bossy pageant coordinator in The Miss Firecracker Contest.

Citing Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) as an inspiration, Wyly says she incorporates a little Kahn into every part. As what she describes as a "stylistic performer" and "character actor," Wyly has always gravitated toward "strange roles," she says, one of the strangest being the lead in Pocket's spoof of Charlie Chan movies, Shanghai Moon. She also played the bad girl in Pocket's High School Hellcats in Heels, written by Dallas playwright Andi Allen.

Wyly specializes in vixens. "I love playing evil, bad, naughty women. If there's any type of goodness to the role, I don't want it. I like taking a character who may not be likable and making her likable to the audience," she says.

Only one thing scares this actress: "Someone not liking my performance."

Wyly says she realized something important as she hit her 30s. "When I was younger, I was afraid of looking ugly onstage. But when you let that go, it really makes a difference with comedy. And as I've gotten older, I've let that go even more. Doing that, you become freer and more beautiful."

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner