Murder-mysteries are trending. Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building is prepping its third season and Netflix is building a universe around Knives Out. Kenneth Branagh has successfully resurrected the most seminal work of the genre’s undisputed queen, Agatha Christie in a pair of well-received films. Human Race Theatre’s latest offering offers up the best elements from all of these with the world premiere of Deadline – a smart, fast-paced, true-to-form whodunit with a theatre-centric twist.
Written by Marsha Kash and Douglas E. Hughes, Deadline centers around playwrights Don and Mara who have been hired to complete a new play left unfinished by the strange and ill-timed death of its writer (whose name is a near anagram of Agatha Christie). The play-within-a-play structure takes on a new element when the lines between the fictional world and real life satisfyingly blur, and Don and Mara find themselves caught inside the pages of their creation.
Directed with a breezy pace and appropriate suspense by Jason Podplesky (last seen on stage in Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Hope), the script crackles with just the right balance of modern nuance and cliché genre-specific moments. Audiences are given room to collect the clues while also providing the inevitable ending a perfect landing. As is so often the case in this genre, the ending is never really the ending. (No spoilers here!) The very funny script knows what it is and often plays tongue-in-cheek with its own mystery-comedy hybrid by dropping wonderful (albeit, subtle) references. The dramatic orchestral sound cues are especially smart and invite the audience to give in to the swift two hours. Imagine Ten Little Indians by way of The Carol Burnett Show; the comedy is never far from the surface even as a real mystery is constantly unfolding.
This stellar cast understood the assignment. Andrew Ian Adams (fantastic in last season’s Airness), amazing Christine Brunner (always a joy to watch), Adelyn Rae Helms, Josh Aaron McCabe, Kelly Mengelkoch (stunningly filling in for Annie Pesch for opening weekend), and appropriately stoic Barry Mulholland are all at the top of their game and create an ensemble that lifts the material off the page.
Ray Zupp’s truly phenomenal scenic design is complimented John Rensel’s gorgeous lighting. Janet G. Powell’s provides stunning costumes. Brando Triantafillou’s sound work and the intimate fight choreography by k. Jenny Jones all work so cohesively, it is as if they all regularly design together. It is often difficult to know where one design element ends and another begins – a rare and wonderful element in any show, but especially in a genre that relies so heavily on keeping the audience informed just enough to move from one moment to the next.
With an eccentric cast of characters and a mystery with enough turns to keep even the most adept of audience members guessing to the bitter end, Deadline is a perfect Fall evening in the theatre. Deadline offers a new twist on a very old (and treasured) idea.
Tickets and performance information for Deadline are available at DaytonLive.org. Performances continue through November 20 at The Loft Theatre in Dayton.