Theater Review: Howdunit as Fascinating as Whodunit in Pegasus Theatre’s Black-and-White Play

In true whodunnit fashion, no one within XSR: Die! is who they appear to be—a conceit that’s furthered by Pegasus Theatre’s trademarked Living Black & White performance style. Not only might that fast-talking ingénue be a killer, but her silvery hair, ashen skin, and onyx kisser disguise the normal Technicolor person hiding beneath the trademarked makeup, set, prop, wig, and costume magic that Pegasus founder Kurt Kleinmann perfected years ago.

Kleinmann, who writes the Black & White plays and portrays reoccurring lead character Harry Hunsacker, is famously tightlipped about how he and his casts and creative teams achieve the amazing effect. Keeping the mystique intact is wise, for it allows audiences to become completely immersed in the glamorous, sometimes screwball 1940s world where everyone’s a suspect, no pun is too obvious, and only a bumbling detective can save the day.

In this year’s offering (“XSR” translates to “cross stage right” in a script), a decade-old revival that nonetheless feels fresh as a daisy, last-minute preparations are under way for opening night of Clayton Farrell’s latest Broadway play, Box Office Poison. Bickering stars Margo Tyler (Lulu Ward) and Eric Devin (Scott Nixon) trade barbs while exasperated director Douglas Mallory (Art Kedzierski) tries to keep everyone focused on rehearsing an altered scene—until a prop gun apparently discharges a bullet into his chest.

Luckily for all, detective and aspiring actor Harry Hunsacker has mistakenly arrived for an audition, accompanied as always by his assistant and “best friend money can buy” Nigel Grouse (Ben Bryant, dashing despite not much to do). Harry must catch the killer before the survivors dwindle even further, and he’s aided unwillingly by gruff cop Lt. Foster (Chad Cline, the only one sporting an amusing New Yawk accent). Was it the grumbling stage manager? Margo’s mute assistant? The curvaceous young starlet? Or is there more than one culprit?

Keep a sharp eye on the intricate stage business, choreographed like a ballet by director Michael Serrecchia, to form your own opinion—you can cast your vote during intermission and possibly win a T-shirt. Kleinmann’s script spreads out the suspicions well (I guessed incorrectly), making it devilishly difficult to nail down a suspect. To say much more would give away the fun, but rest assured there are madcap twists aplenty.

The sillier the plot gets, the more fun the actors have. Ward especially sinks her teeth into her role as an acidic grande dame of the thea-tah, dishing out insults with relish and bringing big theatricality to even the smallest of movements. Charissa Lee matches Ward in physical energy—her mute Rosemary might not say much, but it’s never difficult to tell what she’s thinking. On the other hand, Alex Moore as the blonde and bosomy Jean Hudson does an excellent job of keeping us guessing at her true motives. Sporting a sapphire gown and dripping in crystals, Sara Shelby-Martin injects the only spot of color as the redheaded chanteuse who warms up the crowd before curtain and during intermission with velvety smooth period tunes.

Surrounded by this quartet of powerhouse women, the men do tend to dim a little in comparison. Kleinmann’s slow-witted but well-meaning Hunsacker is sometimes a little too subtle and monotone, and Nixon is often bulldozed by Ward’s over-the-top characterizations. But when the ensemble is in step with each other, the stage crackles with jokes and suspense.

The Black & White shows have become a yearly tradition for Pegasus and, judging by a show of hands prior to the show, many in the audience. If you’re new to the spectacle, XSR: Die! is a tremendous one to start with.

Photo: Ben Bryant and Kurt Kleinmann in XSR: Die! (Credit: Mark Oristano)