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Review: On Theater: ‘Death by Design’ delightfully echoes Christie and Coward in Newport Beach

If playwrights Agatha Christie and Noel Coward had joined forces sometime in the 1930s or ’40s combining their styles and talents, the result might have resembled the current production at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

Entitled “Death by Design,” this fairly recent concoction by Rob Urbinati, with its setting in 1932, leaves little doubt as to its inspiration, merging Christie’s lengthy periods of exposition and list of contrasting suspects with Coward’s sophisticated, laugh-inducing prose. Seasoned playgoers will easily recognize elements of both artists in the Newport concoction directed by Brian Page.

There’s the customary gathering of disparate personalities at an English country home (and yes, the power has been cut off), a murder in which all survivors are suspects, and the witty repartee between two outsize theatrical personalities. A suitable recipe for comedic satire.

Like most plays of this genre, the long journey to the meaty portion often is tedious, which applies pressure on the leading characters — the playwright (Floyd Harden) and his actress wife (Carla Naragon) — to juice things up. And, as usual, the scenes are aptly stolen by the maid (Gina Treasure).

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Harden and Naragon blithely assume the characters inspired by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence (the latter paying an unexpected visit), properly overplaying their thinly veiled love-hate relationship. And Treasure, who definitely is one, romps with self-appointed authority through the proceedings as she takes on the trappings of Christie’s Miss Marple character to “investigate” the crime.

Other familiar satirical targets include the stuffy member of Parliament (Alan Slobodkin), the Bohemian artiste (Jane Nunn), the radical Bolshevik type (Cody Michael Perry), the ladies-man chauffeur (Ben Straley) and an unexpected guest packing heat (Hayley Jackson).

All are effective in their over-plotted roles, but it’s Jackson who really warms up the stage with her agonized outcries and quest for vengeance. Nunn scores on the physical comedy scale as a teetotaler who gets blotto drunk as the evening wears on. Perry relies on caricature flourishes and Straley provides solid support.

Possibly inspired by the line “Don’t bicker, Vicar” in “See How They Run,” Urbinati has given several such rhyming put-downs to his characters, mostly Harden’s Cowardesque playwright. Treasure also revels in periodic comments unbefitting her station in life.

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Against a perfectly designed old English drawing room setting by Andrew Otero, “Death by Design” may take its time in reaching full velocity, but the end should justify the means in this satiric swipe at two legendary playwrights. Theatre

If You Go

What: “Death by Design”

When: Through Oct. 15; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

Admission: $20

Information: (949) 631-0288 or visit ntaconline.com

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

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