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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Design flaws bedevil Death by Design

Posted by on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 at 2:08 PM

★★ 1/2
NCSU TheatreFest
through June 29

Since frames and red herrings are par for the course in mystery novels, the genre’s aficionados were mostly unfazed when amateur detectives Jane Marple and Jessica Fletcher were recently arrested in a coordinated sting operation. (Miss Marple’s exploits have long been immortalized in the novels of Agatha Christie; Fletcher sleuthed on TV's “Murder She Wrote.”) But thriller fans were shocked—shocked!—when the pair subsequently confessed to heading a sophisticated murder-for-money scheme over much of the last century.

“Oh, we didn’t do the first few in,” Marple said in a press conference hastily arranged by her attorney H. Rumpole. “But once we got good at solving murders, we noticed that there wasn’t exactly enough supply to keep up with our demand.”

For her part, an unrepentant Fletcher stated, “What
were the odds that two retired busybodies would happen upon a dead body—and just keep happening upon them after that? Whodunnit? Who in blue blazes do you think dunnit, you idiots?”

“It was right there in front of you,” Marple noted. “We had the motive, the opportunities. And, after those first few novels, we certainly had the means.”

After Fletcher chalked up their serial killings to “the high price of entertainment,” Marple primly observed, “You
do have to break a few eggs, dear.”

click to enlarge Gus Allen, JoAnne Dickinson, Chris Bernier & Lynda Clark in DEATH BY DESIGN - NCSU THEATREFEST
  • NCSU TheatreFest
  • Gus Allen, JoAnne Dickinson, Chris Bernier & Lynda Clark in DEATH BY DESIGN
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Bridgit, the amateur detective—and maid—doesn’t kill Walter Pierce, a more off-able than affable conservative British politician in the murderous comedy DEATH BY DESIGN. (The butler didn’t do it either—there isn’t one.)

With actor JoAnne Dickinson, who has ably explored similar characters in previous TheatreFest seasons, director John McIlwee keeps the central character entirely faithful to the time-honored model of bush league skullduggery. Dickinson’s Bridgit is arch, imperious and the true ruler of the roost in the country home of Edward and Sorel Bennett (Michael Brocki and Lynda Clark). Those two are West End habitués—playwright and diva, respectively—laying low after their latest show tanked on opening night.

Playwright Rob Urbinati tries to marry Nöel Coward with Agatha Christie in this backstage whodunnit, and partially he succeeds. With the chips down, Edward and Sorel have predictably turned on one another, hurling amusing barbs along with Chinese vases and assorted glassware. For their part, Brocki and Clark handle the verbal ballistics with panache.

Elsewhere, however, the wordplay, characters and plotting turn clunky. After Pierce drops in for a botched assignation with Sorel, a poorly written student revolutionary character, a boorish modern dance doyenne (the game Sandi Sullivan) and an ill-defined late arrival mainly show up to provide more suspects. Gus Allen fares a bit better among supporting roles as stand-up chauffeur, Jack.

The production has guilty pleasures aplenty, particularly for those who enjoy backstage catfights. Knowledgeable theatergoers will be amused by the update on Shakespeare's sendup of Pyramus and Thisbe in mid-show. McIlwee’s sets and costumes, as always, are sumptuous, and Julie Florin’s introductory and intermission pianistry is tasteful and elegant. But given the labored plot mechanics, this outing lacks the zip of earlier murder mysteries in this summer series. Unfortunately, there’s a design flaw—or three—in Death By Design.

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