The Ghosts of Pensacola, the play featured in Poker Face's sixth episode, is my new theatrical obsession. Sure, there's the small caveat that it isn't a "real" show, but it will be instantly recognizable to any theater lover. We all know this play, from the Southern influence to the overwrought monologues to the copious amounts of onstage smoking. We've seen it, read it, maybe even been in it. And now, in Poker Face, we witness as this all-American bummer becomes an accomplice to murder.
The episode, titled "Exit Stage Death," revolves around actors Kathleen (Ellen Barkin) and Michael (Tim Meadows), whose local dinner theater production of The Ghosts of Pensacola ends in murder. Leave it to human lie detector Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) to go behind the curtain and crack the case. Along the way, we're treated to glorious theatrics, both onstage and off, and none of it would have been possible without the pitch-perfect play parody that is The Ghosts of Pensacola.
Setting a murder mystery in a dinner theater makes for onscreen magic.
The concept of "Exit Stage Death," which was written by Chris Downey, got its start way back in the Poker Face pitch phase, when writer Christine Boylan suggested one of the show's murders take place at a local dinner theater. From there, showrunner Nora Zuckerman, who heads up Poker Face along with her sister Lilla Zuckerman, came up with the characters of Kathleen and Michael. (The two are named after Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, who starred together in three movies of rocky love: Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, and The War of the Roses.)
"They're this awesome power couple in the movies, and so [the episode delves into] what if they were washed-up and forced to work together again and really hated each other?" Nora Zuckerman told Mashable over a Zoom interview.
After coming up with Kathleen and Michael, all "Exit Stage Death" needed was a show worthy of its thespians. Enter The Ghosts of Pensacola, a title which burst out of Zuckerman in the writers' room. "It was just spur of the moment," she explained. Already, the title had potential. Yes, it oozed drama with its supernatural imagery, but the contrast between ghosts and Pensacola of all places also created a hilarious juxtaposition.
"Pensacola is a place that is probably not very haunted — nothing against the people of Pensacola!" Zuckerman laughed.
How do you write a fake play like The Ghosts of Pensacola?
From the title sprung an entire plot. "It all came out of Chris Downey's thinking about what melodramatic trauma could happen to a family from Pensacola," said Zuckerman. Since Pensacola is home to military bases, Downey constructed a story of a military family with connections to the Air Force who have lost their pilot son.
"We had a lot of fun writing those fake scenes because they were detached and funny," Zuckerman said. "The other idea that came out of [the writing process] was that this is an older play. This is not a hip, cool play of now. This is something that Michael and Kathleen would have done at the beginning of their career. So, it's not the most politically correct play, and it's probably not the most successful."
This is not a hip, cool play of now.
The Ghosts of Pensacola draws from Southern dramas like Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. That play features the character of Laura, a young woman with a limp whose mother wants to find her a suitor. Similarly, the daughter of the family in The Ghosts of Pensacola, played by Rebecca (Audrey Corsa), has a clubfoot and makes frequent references to gentleman callers. Personality-wise, the characters are quite different, but that makes sense. The Ghosts of Pensacola is not meant to be on the level of Williams. Its hackneyed character archetypes are what make it work comedically in the context of "Exit Stage Death."
Despite some of its more ridiculous lines — I, for one, am obsessed with Meadows's delivery of "IndePENdence Day!" — The Ghosts of Pensacola features a few strangely beautiful moments. Zuckerman is partial to a line where Kathleen's character worries her daughter has a "gunmetal heart," a turn of phrase Poker Face creator Rian Johnson added.
Then, there's Kathleen's final monologue about the Pensacola mists, which is one of the only moments of her performance that manages to truly rivet Charlie.
Originally the episode ended with police arresting the plotting murderers. But as soon as Poker Face moved into editing stages and the Zuckermans saw how hard Barkin sold the monologue, it became clear that that should be the true ending — her "swan song" as Zuckerman put it.
These more authentic moments help lend some legitimacy to The Ghosts of Pensacola. Yes, it's a play that falls into some ridiculous tropes, but you can still see why it would be staged.
The play's the thing...with a Poker Face twist.
Let's dive into act three spoilers. On top of seeming like an actual play, it was important that The Ghosts of Pensacola provide opportunities for Kathleen and Michael to set the stage for Ava's murder — and for Charlie to solve it. After all, the whole episode hinges on this performance. It had to be a well-oiled machine. "I think, if you asked anybody in the writers' room, ['Exit Stage Death'] was one of their favorite episodes to break because it's such a little complicated Swiss watch of a story," Zuckerman said.
It's such a little complicated Swiss watch of a story.
"The biggest moment that we wanted to make sure the fake play had in it was the moment between Kathleen and Michael that Charlie witnesses from the catwalk: the 'I love you' moment," explained Zuckerman. Upon hearing that, Charlie realizes that Kathleen and Michael were in cahoots this whole time.
The other essential section was Rebecca's monologue, which gives Kathleen and Michael enough time to sabotage the stage light and the trap door. While we never hear the monologue in its entirety, Corsa delivers the hell out of its opener: "Summer...felt like winter...felt like spring." If that line doesn't scream "my monologue is starting, people!" I don't know what does.
"Exit Stage Death" is the perfect episode for theater geeks.
It's lines like that — or Rebecca's assertion that she "killed that fucking monologue" — that get at why I love The Ghosts of Pensacola and "Exit Stage Death" so much. The entire episode is both a celebration and a send-up of theater. It helps that Poker Face's team included several theater geeks like Boylan, Johnson, and Lilla Zuckerman. All their theater love manifests not just in this episode, but throughout the show. For example, murderer Jed (Colton Ryan) from episode 2 was somewhat named after lonely farmer Jud from Oklahoma!, whom Nora Zuckerman described as "incel-like."
To further channel their passion for theater, the Poker Face team almost included even more fake shows in the episode. "We could've staged a whole season of productions at the Seneca Lake Dinner Theater!" Lilla Zuckerman wrote in an e-mail to Mashable. "Our early ambition was to do a whole montage of different musicals, with escalating degrees of dreadfulness. From a grating 'Give My Regards to Broadway,' to an all-white cast of The Wiz, to Oedipus the Musical, where we went so far as to have a few original songs composed. My favorite lyric was Oedipus singing to his new bride, 'I take you as my wife, it's almost like I've known you all my life.'"
Can we put this play on somewhere? Who do we call?
In the end, the montage proved untenable, although you can still see a poster for Oedipus the Musical in the theater. Only one extra play made the cut: Frankly Franklin, a musical about Benjamin Franklin that features the line "I'm all about the Benjamins."
"We felt like it would be fun if this town had its own version of Hamilton — like they were trying to ride the Hamilton wave," said Nora Zuckerman of Frankly Franklin. "It has that perfect local theater quality with all the passion and the joy associated with it. And all of that is totally lost on Charlie. She's miserable."
Of course, the true masterpiece of "Exit Stage Death" remains The Ghosts of Pensacola in all its Southern glory, a play that everyone on Poker Face is deservedly proud of.
"When we all read that script, we were like, 'Can we put this play on somewhere? Who do we call?'" Zuckerman said.
I don't know who to call, but I do know that I love Poker Face as much as Poker Face loves theater. If the team behind Poker Face ever manages to make The Ghosts of Pensacola a reality, they should know that they'll have at least one guaranteed audience member.
New episodes of Poker Face are streaming every Thursday on Peacock.
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