There’s murder and mystery afoot at the Cary Arts Center, as the Cary Players stage Death by Design, written by Rob Urbinati. Set in the English countryside in 1932, this Agatha Christie/Noël Coward mashup has lots going for it. A nosy maid, a philandering chauffeur, a rich married couple who love/hate each other — it’s the perfect setup for a murder mystery.
The script is clever and witty, but suffers from some odd plot holes that lead to pacing issues in the second act. Despite this, the characters provide plenty of amusement as the cast deftly plays off one another.
The play opens with one of the best preshow announcements that this reviewer has heard in ages, recorded by Bridgit, the saucy Irish maid who has no trouble speaking her mind. Special mention also needs to go out to Kate Moorehead, whose gorgeously detailed set design drew an applause at curtain rise on opening night.
Bridgit (played by a perfectly saucy Sarah Richardson) starts the show in a tizzy; the Master and Missus have arrived at their country cottage without warning, leaving their servants in a frenzy to prepare the premises. Richardson shines in her role, nailing Bridget’s accent as well as her character. She airs her grievances with chauffeur Jack (played by a debonair Jason Christ), revealing that their employers have had another one of their infamous fights and have brought their tempestuous relationship to the countryside with them.
Indeed, it’s not long before Himself and Herself make their entrances. Edward Bennett (played by a suave and dashing Michael S. Parker) sneaks into his home when no one is around (or so he thinks), and sidles up to the sidebar to mess about with the liquor bottles before settling in. Soon after, Sorel Bennet (played by the vivacious Noelle Barnard Azarelo) comes in from the garden with some questionable garnishes for supper. Edward and Sorel start in on each other immediately, and it quickly becomes apparent that their contentious relationship is borne out of clashing egos.
Sorel is a preeminent stage actress of dubious talent, and Edward has become wealthy writing commercially successful albeit substantially specious stage plays, all of which conveniently star his wife. Whether Sorel lacks the talent to handle meatier roles, or Edward is incapable of writing them, has been a long-standing feud between them. Parker and Azarelo have wonderful chemistry here; their fighting is as malicious as it is affectionate, and one wonders if, perhaps, all their caterwauling isn’t just their own version of foreplay.
The stakes are raised when it is revealed that Sorel, in order to add some extra spice to this current feud, has invited Walter Pearce (played with affable pompousness by Doug Simpson), a politician whom Sorel dreams of seducing right under her husband’s nose, to up the ante on his jealousy. She hopes that Pearce will become so smitten with her that he will travel the world on diplomatic assignments with Sorel as his arm candy.
Edward, seemingly unfazed, remains for the weekend to muddy Sorel’s plans. At first, he agreeably disappears to his study while Pearce arrives, but later Edward delights in showing up at all the wrong moments in order to throw Sorel off her game. The verbal sparring during these scenes is delicious — if you can keep up with it.
The plot thickens when further unannounced guests arrive, and it is here that the writing becomes a bit cumbersome. Victoria Van Roth (played by a bombastic Ashley Rebecca Jones), one of Sorel’s dearest friends, is a prolific (but not necessarily skilled) artist, sculptor, dancer, and Bohemian. She arrives with unclear motivation, which is addressed later in the play, but her presence remains baffling in Act 1.
Another abstruse arrival is Eric (played with engaging earnestness by a statuesque Shane de Leon). Eric is a sententious Socialist who, for little apparent reason, demands that Edward write more socially relevant plays. Eric also despises Walter Pearce, who turns out not to be a travelling diplomat but a plain ol’ parliamentarian, and Eric’s arch nemesis by mere political position.
The final surprise character (played by an appropriately timid Emily Chiola) should not be spoiled, as it’s integral to the increasingly complex plot. Suffice it to say, by the end of Act 1, the house is packed with people who all have a motivation to murder any of the others.
Under Mia Peters’ direction, the devil is in the details, and many of the finer moments happen behind the dialogue. This is, perhaps, Peters’ way of addressing the Act 2 dilemmas, which slow the pacing, although the cast is sure to tighten up as they find their footing during the show’s run.
Michael Parker and Noelle Azarelo are wonderful together, speaking volumes in their exchanged glances and layered nonverbals. Likewise, the rest of the talented cast fills in with delightfully unobtrusive character moments that are pure gold.
Don’t miss Bridget’s circumspect cleaning gaffes, or Eric’s subtle kleptomania, to name a few. Even the dead body has one or two occasions for additional amusement. Indeed, a vigilant audience will catch a multitude of these moments that are deftly woven into the overall tapestry of this convoluted whodunit.
Don your sleuth hats and head over to the Cary Arts Center for a fun evening of chicanery and intrigue. Shows run through Sunday, Feb 9th.
The Cary Players present DEATH BY DESIGN: A COMEDY WITH MURDER at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 and 8 and 3 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Cary Arts Center, 101 Dry Ave., Cary, North Carolina 27511.
TICKETS: $20 in advance and $22 at the door ($18 in advance and $20 at the door students and seniors), except $17 per person for groups of 8 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 800-514-3849 or https://www.etix.com/.
GROUP RATES (8+ tickets): Purchase in person at the Cary Downtown Theatre Box Office, 122 E. Chatham St. Cary, NC 27511, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
2019-20 SEASON: http://caryplayers.org/season/2019-2020/current-season/.
VENUE: http://www.townofcary.org/departments/parks__recreation___cultural_resources/facilities/cultural_arts_centers/caryartscenter.htm, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cary-Arts-Center/235735853122351, and http://www.caryplayers.org/cary-arts-center/.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9th, performance.
REVIEWER: Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She has studied acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA; and she now trains locally with Lynda Clark (stage), Daryl Ray Carlisle (film/commercial), and Rebekah Holland (voice). Simmons has performed at Raleigh Little Theatre in Raleigh, Forest Moon Theater in Wake Forest, Stageworks Theatre in Holly Springs, and many others. She is represented by Talent One Agency in Raleigh. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.