Richardson — Pegasus Theatre celebrates its 30th anniversary this year by opening 2016 with Artistic Director Kurt Kleinmann’s 17th play in his series of Living Black & White productions spoofing old black-and-white noir detective movies. Sets, makeup, costumes, sounds and acting style are honed to transport Kleinmann’s dedicated and growing audience back to the genre of ’30s and ’40s films, when everything was depicted in shades of gray that had nothing to do with dreary S&M novels.
When asked if they’d seen a previous production featuring B&W star Harry Hunsacker, virtually all the opening night sell-out crowd at the 400-seat Eisemann Center theater waved their hands and cheered. The dimwit detective and aspiring actor may be an idiot, but Kleinmann is clearly a pro when it comes to creating and sustaining a theatrical tradition that spans three decades in our fair metropolis.
In Death is a Bad Habit!, Harry, always embodied by Kleinmann (although Scott Nixon plays the role at Saturday matinees, prepping for taking over the part at some point) and always at the befuddled center of the muddy plot, gets himself to a nunnery at the bequest of Bishop Perkins (Michael Robinson) who smells something rotten in the convent housing the Sisters of Perpetual Weepiness. Why are the nuns wailing so much more? Sounds like the perfect scene for a sleuth with a wit thicker than whale blubber and his bulb-bright, paid-by-the-hour assistant Nigel Grouse (ever-modest Ben Bryant) to step in, stir up some suspects and serve up a big helping of convoluted clues, painfully funny puns, dead herrings and dead bodies.
The formula works for the most part, although the first act needs more zingers and Harry flub-ups, and I wanted more movement in the talky, gather-the-clues part toward the end. The new play does include a funny bit with gender-bending disguises of some characters. After all, identity quests and a passion for perversion are old tricks in the mystery trade. Cutest of these is Lt. Foster (a gruff and perpetually put-upon Chad Cline), the policeman eternally doomed to clean up after Harry’s goober crime-scene antics. A hoot in a habit, and evoking a mincing emasculated nun with mustache intact, he attracts the slobbering attentions of the gangly old groundskeeper (a shuffling, clue-strewn Chris Messersmith). Hey, this bit could spawn a whole TV series!
As the familiar trio, in and out of wimple, carry out their supposed “papal mission,” they encounter a convent full of penitents and not-so-penitents, flighty sisters and paunchy brothers and a substantial Mother Superior (a shape-shifting, surprising Sheila Rose) who reads hapless Harry like a bible. Huh?
There’s fun to be had with not one but four pretty nuns, as similar in shape and clothing as a quartette of Rockettes. Trailing one another up a stair, or falling to their knees in prayer, director Michael Serrecchia arranges the flowing figures like a moving pastel drawing in many visually charming strokes. Actresses Beth Lipton, Alex Moore, Leslie Patrick and Samantha Rodriquez, each find ways to distinguish their nice or naughty nun, and each has a poignant past or a peculiar present, especially the airhead sister with an invisible friend Harry tries to feel up—just to check out her story. Honest. (There’s also a sister named Maria, who, although not a singer, propels a series of groaners about how she presents a “problem.”)
There’s even a couple of cassocked brothers, Ben Schroth and Bryan Douglas, comically portraying the long and the short of it, the culpable and the quivering, and both at the beck and call of the commanding sweeping glance of Mother Superior. The cocks in the henhouse, it turns out, are visiting from a neighboring monastery to help with the harvest. But harvesting what? Get out your clue pads!
Then there’s Kleinmann’s indomitable, adorable dumb-ass Harry. He’s not only patented the B&W style of shows, but the slack-jawed, vacant stare of the terminally dim, a man too slow on the draw to even be confused. He sees through a black and white film clip very darkly—but when he does stumble on a clue, or Nigel points to it, Kleinmann’s Harry leaps from his stocky, stolid stoop and dances about like a light-filled fairy. Three gleeful seconds of pure joy, then another body falls, or a scream is heard—or maybe somebody just points out that he’s nuts. Aw, shucks. But Harry hangs in there, and the murderer is inevitably outted in two hours or so, and blonde Barbara Weinberger, Pegasus’ executive director, wearing a glam lipstick-red dress, joins the cast on stage for a last shocking contrast. Applause redux. The meticulous design team creates the highs of the B&W shows, and they do themselves proud with this production, creating a palette director Serrecchia uses in painterly ways.
At the outset, Harry gets his assignment via a video set in a dingy diner. The large screen goes dark. The curtain goes up, and ta-dah!—the gothic arches and stained glass windows of Robert Winn’s convent appear before you, rendered in beautifully modulated and detailed shades of gray. You can almost detect violets and golds at the edges. The applause is an opera-like moment, and when the characters appear in their matching costumes (courtesy Jen J. Madison), makeup and wigs (designed by Stephanie Williams) you feel a swell of deep appreciation of the sort evoked when looking at hyperrealism in painting. It doesn’t last long, but the thrill is worth the work—and clearly, the price of a ticket for all those devoted Pegasus fans.
Here’s to Harry and his never-say-die approach to detective work. Wait. Harry never says “never.”
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