Delightful By Design: Rob Urbinati's Vivid Murder Mystery Death By Design at HFAC

The setup: A rare event -- the world premiere of a comedy commissioned by a local theater -- merges wit, sophistication and even pratfalls into a medley of humor and fun.

The execution: Playwright Rob Urbinati must have had as much fun writing this comedy as the audience has in savoring it. With deliberate echoes of Noël Coward, Patrick Barton plays Edward Bennett, a blasé, world-weary playwright with a penchant for wit, and brings upper-class charm and a highly expressive visage to the party. His actress wife, Sorel, is played by Stephanie Morris and she is captivating indeed -- beautiful, poised, flashy and with an insatiable desire to be admired; the audience is happy to do so. The time is 1932 and the costumes by Lindsay Blair and especially the marcelled hair prove it -- I wanted to give one hat a standing ovation on its entrance.

The setting is a country home, soon to be invaded by vivid characters, each etched indelibly by Urbinati's comic pen. First is the stuffy politician Walter Pearce, enamored of Sorel and intent on a liaison; J. Blanchard captures him in all his smugness. Then young radical Eric intrudes and Joshua Clark is brilliant in his portrayal, bringing high energy and the enthusiasm of the truly dedicated. Next to intrude in this rich panoply of characters is Victoria Van Roth, a bohemian dancer and artist played by Hannah McKinney. I liked her less well, as they played Victoria for parody rather than truth, but her impromptu dance recital was a comic masterpiece. The last intruder was Alice, played by Chaney Moore, myopic and intent on no good, and I fell in instant love with her, even before her superb pratfalls. Last but by no means least is "the help" -- Jack the chauffeur, well-played by Matt Elliott, and Bridgit the maid, superbly played by Kathy Drum.

Urbinati is a highly original writer and it should by now come as no surprise that these are lead characters, not background noise. Jack is crucial to surprising plot developments, and Bridgit runs the household, and the Bennetts, with an iron hand, as well as playing detective to ferret out the real perpetrator. She is the comedic spine of the play and Drum is a superb comedienne -- Houston is lucky to have her. Drum's reading of a simple line, '"Please tell me you kept your skivvies on, Jack!" will live with me forever. The handsome set is by Benjamin Mason, and the whole enterprise is directed with verve and style by Lisa Garza, but I did wonder why the actors, especially Morris, so often faced the audience instead of the characters they were addressing.

The verdict: This wonderful new comedy is filled with laughter, peopled with vivid, fascinating characters, and staged so well that it should have legs. Off-Broadway might take note, and then, dare I surmise, Broadway itself?

Correction: 9:50 a.m. September 23. The actor who plays Jack the chauffeur is Matt Elliott. An earlier version of this article misnamed him.

Through Sept. 25, Houston Family Art Center, 10760 Grant Rd., 281-685-6374.

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