MURDEROUS MOTIVES Good Theater sends up Coward and Christie in a capital who-drunk-it.
Someone doctors the Scotch early on, but it's brandy that playwright Edward Bennett (Rob Cameron) and his actress wife Sorel (Abigail Killeen) start in on first in Death by Design, by Rob Urbinati. Billed as a farcical mash-up of Noel Coward and Agatha Christie, this "comedy with murder" receives its East Coast premiere at the Good Theater with a capital cast, under the direction of Brian P. Allen.
Edward and Sorel have had yet another row, in the fallout of their latest London opening, and have chased each other to their country house, to the irritated surprise of their maid Bridgit (Susan Reilly) and chauffeur Jack (Benjamin Row). In the Bennetts' sitting room of muted beige and dark wood (including a very handsome paneled door, in Craig Robinson's set design), Edward and Sorel proceed to torment each other so creatively and with such schizophrenic relish that one might wonder whether Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had been added into the mash-up cocktail. The lovebirds are soon joined by a cacophony of guests with interestingly constellated mutual resentments, including conservative politician Walter Pearce (Paul Haley, properly stiff of limb and pursed of mouth), leftist radical Eric (a fiery Matt Delamater), and bohemian artist/dancer Victoria Van Roth (an over-the-top Janice Gardner). By the time there's a body to contend with, everyone in residence has expressed multiple murderous motives.
All of them, of course, are comic types, and the mood is one of high caricature and physical comedy, with the rolling of Sorel onto and off of laps, artsy posturing by Victoria, and even her interpretive dance with Wall and Tree. Reciprocal disdain is a common currency among the guests, and it drips trippingly off of all tongues. At times a slightly tighter pacing would help amp up these tropes and tones of farce, but overall this cast sends up Coward and Christie with sly intelligence and energy.
The show is very smartly cast, and one of the stand-outs is Cameron, in an ascot and head bandage, as Edward: he wallows deliciously in smooth, smug derision and a barrage of sing-song insults, ever amused with his own malicious wit. He is well paired with Killeen's diva Sorel, who is drama incarnate, mouthing mellifluous banalities and striking one stylized vogue after another. Edward and Sorel's rapport is pitch-perfect; Albee himself would appreciate the lustful affection with which these two loathe each other. Row's sharp, animated Jack is another highlight, with a spring-loaded physicality, and the preternaturally adaptable Delamater, as Eric, is ever a pleasure to watch: the nuance with which his rabble-rouser navigates the various British classes and personalities, and his own impulses, is at once subtle and perfectly suited to farce.
These characters have some great lines to deliver, particularly (of course) playwright Edward, in whose mouth the snarky urbanities are like whiskeyed butter. Playwright Urbinati gives him and the others a fun array of verbal flourishes — rhymed character names are an ongoing gag — and the conversation takes some entertaining digs at theater itself, as well as the archetypes of the British class system. And oh, yes, the murder. Of course it's less a mortal emergency than a vehicle for everyone's lampoonery, especially once they've drained the brandy and moved on to gin.
DEATH BY DESIGN | by Rob Urbinati | Directed by Brian P. Allen | Produced by Good Theater, at the St. Lawrence Arts Center | through February 24 | 207.885.5883