Little Theatre of Alexandria does justice to a whodunnit in ‘Design for Murder’

In the greater DC region, an entire ecosystem of community theater exists and thrives largely outside of the professional and semi-pro sphere. They have their own support organization that gives out annual WATCH Awards, with 30 member organizations. Many have loyal audiences, robust funding, nice venues, and talented artists. This may be news to some people.

There is a tangible schism between the two worlds. I’ve worked with hundreds of non-Equity DC-area actors who existed in various shades of the vast gray area of semi-professional theater, but only a few who have actually worked in local community theater. Some of these groups require membership fees, which is a line in the sand for some people (myself included). I note with some regret that I can count the number of WATCH-eligible productions I’ve seen on a single hand, and I’m as culpable as any in maintaining this schism.

James Lorenzin (David) and Kathy Ohlhaber (Celia) in ‘Design for Murder.’ Photo by Brian Knapp Photography.

Little Theatre of Alexandria has been around for nearly 90 years. They’ve had their own building in the heart of Old Town for 60 years, which they own outright: a sumptuous 200-seat space that would be the envy of many small professional companies, especially given the number of venues that have disappeared in the past several years. They have a healthy budget, high production values, a playbill packed with ads from local businesses, a core of committed volunteers, and — judging from opening night, at least — a large and loyal audience. They’re perhaps the quintessence of a successful community theater.

That said, there are some tropes that even the best community groups can’t shake. There will likely be variation, sometimes wide, in talent and experience. There will sometimes be some casting choices that result in some age-inappropriate relationships. Frequently in addition to the contemporary musicals, old chestnuts, comedies, and holiday material, there’s a potboiler murder mystery — often Agatha Christie, occasionally not — complete with its own subset of tropes, many of which have not aged well.

And thus here we are at the opening night of Little Theatre of Alexandria’s production of George Batson’s Design for Murder, their season’s murder mystery. Batson is an obscure, long-deceased playwright active in the ’40s and ’50s with a handful of short-run Broadway titles (this not among them) and a few TV credits, but apparently with enough industry clout to get Tallulah Bankhead to play the lead. Design for Murder is a fairly well-structured exemplar of the genre; even if nobody will confuse it with Dame Agatha, it’s still in the catalog and gets mileage on community stages, and LTA does it sufficient justice to deliver an intriguing night out.

The widow Celia Granger (Kathy Ohlhaber in a poised and confident turn in Tallulah’s role) lives with her moody artist/playboy son David (James Lorenzin) in an imposing house overlooking the upper reaches of the Hudson River in upstate New York. We meet them on the occasion of David’s engagement to a rich debutante — good news given their precarious finances — though he’s having a dalliance with the young housemaid Kathy (Elizabeth Loyal), his muse for a potentially scandalous painting that could ruin everything.

Pete Leggett (Nora) and Frank Cooper (Brent) in ‘Design for Murder.’ Photo by Brian Knapp Photography.

When Kathy is run down by a car late that night, there are a large number of people in the house who are suddenly under scrutiny. The chauffeur Moreno (a campily sinister Denny Martinez-Barrera) knows secrets and exploits Celia for blackmail. Kathy’s replacement Nora (a spritely, vivacious Pete Leggett) arrives with suspicious promptness and an ambiguous backstory. Even Inspector Carlin (a gruffly effective Brendan Chaney) may have ulterior motives.

Of course, there’s a dark and stormy night, the body count mounts, and there are accusations and recriminations, until the final twist, which is sufficiently surprising to deliver a late thrill. A few of the red herrings in the script might just be lazy writing and abandoned plot elements. As I previously hinted, the wide variance in talent impacts some key roles. It’s billed as a comedy murder mystery, but apart from some campy elements specific to the genre, there’s not an overabundance of laughs, and a lot of the action is subsumed by expository writing; it seemed like the most exciting, vibrant action was happening offstage, quite often with characters we never meet.

Kathy Ohlhaber (Celia) and Patricia Spencer Smith (Mrs Hamilton) in ‘Design for Murder.’ Photo by Brian Knapp Photography.

Jessie Roberts directs efficiently and keeps the action flowing, and Julie Fischer’s set design is quite sumptuous. Judy Welihan’s costuming is effective, the lighting by Cleo Potter and Jay Stein is moody, and I appreciated the details like the rear-projected flames in the fireplace (via Jon Roberts, who also provided sound design).

I lived walking distance from LTA for several years while a working actor and never crossed the threshold until this show, and I can’t help but think that more communication/crossover between the region’s community theaters and smaller professional companies — and their respective audiences — would be mutually beneficial.

Running Time: Approximately two hours 15 minutes with intermission.

Design for Murder plays through November 5, 2022, at Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria VA. For tickets ($24–$27), call (703) 683-0496 or go online. 

COVID Safety: Little Theatre of Alexandria requires all persons attending performances to wear a mask indoors.

Design for Murder by George Batson
Directed by Jessie Roberts
Produced by Carol Strachan
Assistant producer: Hilary Adams