Richardson — Did you miss the premiere of Kurt Kleinmann’s The Time of Death when it premiered at Pegasus Theatre in 1999? No problem for the multitude of fans following the Living Black & White adventures of Harry Hunsacker (comically clueless Scott Nixon), bumbling private detective and wanna-be actor.
The classy revival, celebrating Pegasus Theatre’s 34th season, is onstage at the Eisemann Center with the new, telling title, The Color of Death. Even Harry could figure out there’s color added to the only three-act play in Kleinmann’s 20-play series featuring the noir detective and his paid-by-the-hour assistant Nigel Grouse (posture-perfect Ben Bryant in gallant ladies-man mode). The peacock-bright pallet of colors in the second act stuns our valiant sleuths thrown with swirling smoke and grinding gears into the future of film. Talk about color barriers.
The evening opens with a Hollywood-style silver screen dropping before the stage of the 400-seat Eisemann Center theater, and we’re taken back to 1944 with actual film footage of World War II marching German soldiers and even a clip of Hitler himself. The clever intro, written by playwright Kleinmann and director Michael Serrecchia, returning for his ninth Harry adventure, smoothly merges vintage news reels with video of some familiar characters. In a bizarre and funny scene, a fretting U.S. Army Intelligence officer enlists Harry, Nigel and Detective Lt. Foster (petty, grumbling Chad Cline) to help win the war by serving as spies at a secret Nazi research lab in Bavaria. Now that’s desperation.
Then up goes the screen and we’re witness again to the always surprising delight of actors in the trademarked black and white makeup, outfitted in Michael Robinson’s costumes constructed of furs and fabrics in a fascinating spread of black and white shades and textures. Of course, they inhabit a black and white underground laboratory, in a simple, effective set designed by Robert Winn, the central feature of which is an enormous, ominous looking machine with a glass-windowed door.
Serrecchia wastes no time in setting his hapless hero stumbling forward. Harry and company march right into the lab, having been infiltrated as German officers on a mission from the Fuhrer himself to get a report of the secret weapon the scientists are rushing to complete since the war is about to be lost. One scientist asks for their papers, and eager Harry promptly hands over his headshot and résumé.
The fun of the Harry shows, as in all classic murder mysteries, is in the eccentric characters who, sooner or later, will all becomes suspects when the dead bodies start piling up. In addition to a glowering Nazi major (Chris Messersmith), our trio is thrust into a flurry of German accents that would confound even the best linguist, and sometimes the audience.
Three mad Nazi scientists vie for comic villainy here. Michael Speck, in ultra-white curly wig as Professor Heisenberg, trembles comically at the thought that the weapon might not work as designed, and begs for more time to refine his equations. Heisenberg made uncertainty famous, after all. Bryan Douglas is Beedlemann, the creepy lab assistant, copying frantically the blackboard equations that Harry has mindlessly “corrected.” Brandon Whitlock delivers the evil-is-fun Teitlebaum, a cocky, sneering know-it-all with the best Deutscher accent in the lab.
Women wiggle and skip their way with ease into this sieve-like secret lab to stir the plot. Alex Moore is suspicious from the get-go as the always-present servant Liesel. Leslie Patrick, as the white-fox swaddled Baroness Amada Reiter, turns on the comic hard-sell seduction in her search for still another rich old man with one foot in the grave. Beth Gilvie is the major’s saccharine sweet and innocent young niece Frederika. Naturally, all the women instantly swoon the instant Nigel appears. Bryant milks the chick-bait aspect of his role for all its comic possibilities. He even got applause on opening night for one such daring move.
Something does, in fact, go wrong with the giant experimental machine, and the plot smokes and grinds and cranks out not only corpses, but some bright surprises that only those who see it with their own eyes can fully appreciate. We know the middle act involves color, but costume designer Robinson, previously denied access to the rainbow palette, goes utterly crazy here, especially in the hilarious sci-fi elements in his designs. Let me just say: the #MeToo crew will cheer when they meet militant guardians Elizabeth Piper and Gwen Pallas, never mind their grandiose commander-in-outrageous-outfits.
The third act, in which all is revealed to you via more questions, guesses and nutty theories, slows down. Some of the jokes and lines about who ranks higher and who works for who feel redundant, and all those guttural German accents get a little wearing after two hours. Still, we wait impatiently for Harry to stumble, pushed in the right direction by his trusty assistant, onto who actually done it.
Or did they all do it? Everybody in The Color of Death! helps pull it off — and on — and off again. What a fun way to start a colorful new year of live theater.
CORRECTION: The original version of this review had the character descriptions of Leisel and Frederika switched; TheaterJones regrets the error.