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Aldersgate Church Community Theater Design for Murder

By • Mar 22nd, 2011 • Category: Reviews
Design for Murder by George Gatson
Aldersgate Church Community Theater
Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Alexandria, VA
Through April 3rd
2:30, with one intermission
$15/$12 Seniors and Youth (Discount online)
Reviewed March 18th, 2011

The director’s notes for Aldersgate Church Community Theater’s production of the vintage drawing room mystery Design for Murder, by George Batson, state that the play has likely never before been performed in the Washington area. There is probably a good reason for this: the creaky 1931 script leaves no cliché unturned. (Editor’s note: The play was performed twice in the 1960’s.) The audience is treated to a remote, gloomy mansion; a saucy, seductive maid; a sleazy blackmailer; a formerly wealthy family with skeletons in its closet; a trenchcoat-clad detective; and even a dark and stormy night. At least the butler didn’t do it: there is no butler in the play.

Act 1 is mostly exposition. Following a failed engagement party, David, the young man of the house, and Moreno, the chauffeur, vie for the attentions of Kathy, a none-too-virtuous maid. Meanwhile, David’s mother, Celia, and her gossipy friends Martha and Louisa discuss the household’s strained finances and the social landscape of the neighborhood. Kathy calls a mysterious phone number. Nobody gets murdered. By the beginning of Act 2, however, a body has turned up, and Detective Carlin of the local police arrives to begin the questioning and make a few tentative romantic overtures to Celia. Naturally, almost everyone in the cast is a suspect, or at least knows more than he or she is telling. A second murder thickens the plot. Not until the scenery-chewing reveal in Act 3 does the audience learn the identity and motive of the killer.

It would take almost heroically fine acting to make this dated vehicle work. Alas, fine acting was in short supply. With a nasal voice and uncontrolled physicality, Gail Seavey made a distracting Celia. Peter Johnson’s David displayed a too-narrow vocal and emotional range. Richard Isaacs, as Moreno, was more melodrama villain than the script required. More importantly, these and other actors often appeared simply to recite lines at one another, rather than listening to and engaging with their scene partners. A significant number of the show’s lines seemed to be presented directly to the audience, rather than being part of a relationship among characters.

Elliot Bales, as Detective Carlin, brought a relaxed demeanor and solid physical presence to his work in Act 2, and Liz Isbell did a nice dual comic turn as Louisa and Mrs. Hamilton, the housekeeper, differentiating her characters well. Paula Vickers as Martha, Vanessa Stolzoff as Kathy, and Lynley Peoples, as Nora (a more virtuous maid with a mysterious past), rounded out the cast.

Technically, the production made good use of the venue’s resources. Light cues were spot-on. The single set was effective as the drawing room of a once-elegant mansion. The set dressings were appropriate, with one glaring exception: a large color photo over the fireplace of Celia’s long-dead husband, which looked for all the world like an enlarged snapshot of a cute young 1980’s man, rather than a portrait of a wealthy landowner in the first third of the 20th century. Equally out of period was the appearance in one scene of a character wearing a polo shirt and khakis. The rest of the costume design fit the time and the characters. The sound design was generally effective, unobtrusive, and timely, though there were the unintentionally amusing quirks of a bell rope with no bell and a clock chime with no clock. The show ended with a quick and well-conceived curtain call.

Director’s Note

Welcome to the Aldersgate Church Community Theater production of Design For Murder.

The playwright, George Batson, is somewhat of an enigma. He has written a number of plays but little is written about him. His mysteries can easily be compared to better-known playwright, Agatha Christie. Both have a knack for plots that leave you wondering about “who dun it” ’till the very end.

Several of the original cast members went on to interesting careers in film and on stage.

Tallulah Bankhead (Celia) became a household name and was known for her outlandish behavior and comments. She was particularly known for her roles in Little Foxes and Private Lives. She once said, “If you really want to help American Theater, don’t be an actress dahling. Be an audience.”

Joseph Campanella (Moreno) starred in a number of soap operas and voiced many National Geographic specials. He was the lead in the “Rampaging Rat” “Thriller” “Ben” which is best known as the film that introduced Michael Jackson’s song “Ben” to the music world…. probably the only love song to a rat ever written!

Carlton Carlin (David) was involved with the Actor’s Studio for years and taught/wrote about method acting techniques. His books a re still available as a resource for budding actors.

If this play is one you haven’t heard of before that is not surprising… we can find no evidence that it has been produced in the tri-state area before. This has allowed the cast the honor and responsibility of establishing the characters without being swayed by the interpretations of other performers.

Photo Gallery

Nora's arrival Carlin introduces Brent
Nora’s arrival
Carlin introduces Brent
Household and help
Household and help

Photos provided by ACCT.

Cast

  • Moreno: Richard Isaacs
  • David: Peter Johnson
  • Louisa CortlandtLiz Isbell
  • Martha Brand: Paula Vickers
  • Kathy: Vanessa Stolzoff
  • Celia: Gail Seavey
  • Mrs. Hamilton: Liz Isbell
  • Carlin: Elliot Bales
  • Nora Taylor: Lynley Peoples
  • Brent: Kevin Harr

Production Staff

  • Producer: Bailey R. Center
  • Director: Liz Owens
  • Stage Manager: Kadira Coley
  • Set Design: Liz Owens & Bailey R. Center
  • Set Construction: Stuart Travis
  • Assisted by: Bill Austin, Lee Blount
  • Set Painting: Mary Hutzler
  • Assisted by: Richard Isaacs, Jim Hutzler and Bobbie Herbst
  • Set Dressing: Sharon Connelly
  • Props: Kevin Harr
  • Light Design: Nancy Owens
  • Assisted by: Kevin Haarm, Gail Seavey, Liz Owens, Bailey Center, Liz Isbell
  • Light Technician: Morgan Vaughan
  • Sound Designer: Sean Doyle
  • Sound Technician: Hattie “Nikki” Smith
  • House Manager: Julie Pfister
  • Concessions: Bill Austin
  • Costumes: Jennifer Corl
  • Publicity: Candy F. Cole
  • Assisted by: Bill Austin
  • Graphic Designer: Sheena Green
  • General Assistance: Christy Tran
  • Audition Assistance: Shirley Bolstadm, Candy F. Cole, Sheena Green, Sharon Connelley
  • Opening Night Reception: Shirley Bolstad
  • Assisted by: Kathy Powell, Kacie Greenwood, Emma Ekman, Jayn Rife and Marg Soroos

Disclaimer: Aldersgate Church Community Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

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