Death by Design, written by Rob Urbinati and receiving its regional premiere this week at Saginaw Valley State University, is a murder-mystery that combines the intricate plotting of Agatha Christie with dry humor of Noel Coward. Edward and Sorel Bennett, a husband and wife playwright/actress team who are constantly at each other's throats, retire to their house in the country, joined by their long-suffering maid Bridget and their chauffeur Jack, as several uninvited guests arrive. Tensions rise, until they ultimately culminate in murder. Under the direction of the maid, Bridget, the murderer is eventually found out among a multitude of puns, pratfalls, and asides to the audience. While the plot at times seemed a bit thin, or too convoluted for its own good, it was nonetheless enjoyable.
Director Ric Roberts assembled a cast that provided performances that were strong across the board, with our introduction to the play being offered by maid Bridget (Abby Burgess) and chauffeur Jack (Conner Wieland), quickly joined by the Bennetts (Clay Singer and Brianne Dolney). All four play off one another admirably in several two character scenes that give us a ton of exposition (in the style of Agatha Christie) while also having strong comedic timing (in the style of Noel Coward). They are soon joined by a strange group of individuals that shouldn't all fit together, but somehow, they manage. Member of Parliament Walter Pierce (David Hansen), artist/dancer Victoria Von Roth (Aubree Harrell), revolutionary Eric (Austin Butterfield), and nerdy stranger Alice (Tristian Evanoff). Hansen, essentially playing the straight man to a cast of much crazier characters, did well portraying the pompous and conservative politician. Harrell and Evanoff milk every possible moment for laughs throughout and are really fun to watch, but do sometimes draw focus away from dialogue of other characters. And Butterfield, in his very first scripted role, does well holding his own onstage with a group of more seasoned actors.
If there is one complaint, it is that the first act’s pacing does drag a bit with so many two person scenes providing us with A LOT of backstory to follow and remember. The slower pacing does allow us to understand the British, and one Irish, dialects a bit better, but also provides a somewhat more confusing plot because things just aren't moving as fast as they probably should. These pacing issues mostly remedy themselves in the second act, which is written with almost the entire ensemble onstage and is much funnier because of that fact. Some bits of dialogue were lost from being delivered before the audience’s laughter had died down, but that is an issue that can easily be addressed on a night by night basis.
Costume design by Jennifer Lothian captured the feel of a British comedy well, providing us with the all the fashion one would expect from our insane cast of characters.
Lighting design by Katie Godell was somewhat standard. A prolonged sequence of characters walking through the set in the dark could have used a more interesting change in lighting, providing a bit more clarification of the actions each character was executing.
Sound design by Peggy Mead-Finizio was well executed with ominous thunderclaps and musical stings providing the audience with another reminder of just what kind of show they were watching.
Set design was typically well done by Jerry Dennis. The playing space was kept very open for our large cast of characters to use for their hijinks, with lots of detail on the walls and surrounding areas to remind us of the wealth and society these characters belong to; however, the fireplace, provided by a digital image playing non-stop throughout, seemed out of place with so much real life detail in the rest of the set.
Whether a fan of murder mysteries or comedies or both, there certainly is something for everyone with this overall well executed production.
Death by Design continues its run Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, February 22-24 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, February 25th at 3:00pm at SVSU's Malcolm Field Theatre for Performing Arts. For more information or to order tickets, click here or visit the box office up to two hours before curtain.