"What's my motivation?"
There's a legitimate question actors ask when doing character work; one that has been given larger life as an inside joke in the thea-tah. That question takes on extra layers in a murder mystery, in which the audience is also supposed to ponder the motivation of each character (read: suspect) in possibly knocking off the victim(s).
That's something Kurt Kleinmann typically does well in his Living Black and White mysteries, which star him as detective Harry Hunsacker, who's always accompanied by his "paid-by-the-hour" assistant Nigel Grouse. And maybe not any better than in one of his more entertaining entries in the series, 1991's XSR: Die!, which is having a revival as Pegasus Theatre's annual show at the Eisemann Center in Richardson.
All of the Black and Whites are a bit ham-fisted, but that works particularly well in a show set backstage, filled with spotlight-hogging actors and other theatrical types. Besides, as important as the sleuthing and the corny jokes is the visual effect of 1930s/40s celluloid, the signature of these shows. Black-and-white film translates here to sets, props, costumes, wigs and make-up all in shades of gray, with no hint of color until the eye-shocking reveal at curtain call. Even the actors' hands are made-up, or at least wearing gloves. (So costumes with long sleeves are preferable; easy enough for the men.)
This year, on opening night on New Year's Eve, the make-up was particularly well-done; some years the actors have a silvery, Tin Man essence. The set (by Dave Tenney), costumes (Jen Madison), lighting (Sam Nance), wigs (Stephanie Williams) and props (John Harvey) also beautifully assist in the goal. Pegasus has been doing these shows too long for them to lose any of the allusion. That's the big draw, after all.
Kleinmann was inspired by the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films for this series, and his creation of the Hunsacker character—which you appreciate more the longer you've been seeing the shows—is dim-witted and as reliant on coincidence and luck as he is on mental puzzle-piecing. He fell on sleuthing as a way to pass the time (we have to assume he's paid for said services), but he always had ambitions of something else.
In XSR (on paper in stage directions, that means "cross stage right"), that something else is acting. So as dumb luck would have it, he stumbles into the wrong theater for an audition. But he and Nigel (a dashing Ben Bryant, who has played the role for several years) end up behind the scenes of a play called Box Office Poison, the title of which hints at one method by which a victim is offed. Poison, that is; not death by bad theater.
The victims are director Douglas Mallory (Art Kedzierski) and playwright Clayton Farrell (Clay Wheeler). The suspects include the play's lead actress Margo Tyler (Lulu Ward), hammy and bad-toupéed actor Eric Devin (Scott Nixon), ingénue Jean Hudson (Alex Moore), prop boy Eddie (Blake Hametner), mute costume mistress Rosemary (Clarissa Lee) and stage manager Gus Winslow (Ben Schroth).
Lt. Foster (Chad Cline) is there to provide the no-nonsense, which is important considering it's the theater, where nonsense is as commonplace as some newbie incessantly wanting to run lines.
Lulu Ward's Margo resembles high-career Bette Davis, chin up and eyes searching, accusative. With the make-up and wig, it sometimes even approaches the level of Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein, only with a sassier 'do and better communication skills. As the stage diva complicated by both over-confidence and—offstage, we assume—massive self-criticism, Margo is clearly the star of Box Office Poison. And Ward is the star of XSR: Die!
Nixon makes an appropriately over-the-top match as competing thespian Eric, and the shaky-rug bit is hilarious. Lee and Wheeler also give standout turns.
Director Michael Serrecchia creates some lovely stage pictures; it helps to have a set that confines the actors a little more than previous Black and White sets in the Eisemann's smaller Bank of America Theatre.
It's one of the strongest Living Black and White shows in years. If the motivation is to entertain—and isn't it always?—then this cast and crew have found theirs.
Tip: Come a little early and hear Sara Shelby-Martin singing tunes of the era in a royal blue gown.
♦ After its stint at the Eisemann, XSR: Die! moves to the MCL Grand Theater in Lewisville for performances Jan. 24-27