Keep on Guessing in Covey Center for the Arts’ “Murder by the Book”

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By Andrea Johnson

Now, I love a murder mystery as much as the next girl.  In fact, my husband believes that my obsession with crime shows is merely research for his untimely demise. However, even I was delightfully flummoxed by the twists and turns of Murder by the Book, an intricate who-done-it-and-done-it-again directed by Reese Purser and produced by the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, Utah.

Just when you think you have it all figured out, they switch glasses.

The Covey Center complex is a beautiful theater in downtown Provo, and I always enjoy attending events in this space.  As we arrived, we were easily able to park close to the theater and walk right up to the doors.  There are two theaters in the building, and this performance is in the Brinton Black Box on the upper level.  I was excited to bring my husband and my mom to this show, as they are both avid readers of mystery novels. Given that none of us had seen or read this play before, we were all excited to see if we could solve the mystery.  As is typical of black box theater, some of the seating is in the corners, and that is where our seats were. The show moves and changes quickly, actively, and excitingly, so it is a little frustrating to have to peer around so much, but the fast pace is quite enjoyable.

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As reviewers, we are asked to give a little bit of a plot summary for the reading audience, especially for new or unfamiliar plays.  However, I am in a bit of a quandary in that this play is best watched with little or no background information going in.  I loved the not-knowing that came from actually reading the wrong play synopsis prior to the performance.  It was just a lot of fun, and I had no idea where the plot was going to take me.  But, for the sake of a starting point, Murder by the Book is a glimpse into the witty murder plot gone awry in the English flat of a famous mystery writer and critic, Selwyn Piper.  What happens after that is all a spoiler alert.

Joel Applegate is perfectly cast in the role of Selwyn, and plays the self-important and self-assured writer with an air of superiority you secretly wish will lead to his demise.  His desire to be the smartest person in the room plays well, and except for some confusing pauses, is loaded with quick quips and dagger-smooth jabs.  I am not sure if the lags in dialogue are an acting choice or an actor fog moment, but they are few and far between.  I enjoyed his performance a great deal, but especially the interchange between Selwyn and his estranged wife, Imogen Piper, played by Chandra Lloyd.  Honestly, the interplay when they are finally alone was delightful, and I love how that worked throughout the rest of the show.  Chandra’s performance of Imogen is smooth and powerful, especially when interacting with Selwyn, and is a highlight of the show.

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Imogen’s relationship with her lover, John Douglas, played by Ryan Pfister, does not play as well, however.  My mother remarked that she wasn’t really sure they were lovers at all.  There is some misperception of intention that resides within the plot, but I feel like the choices of the moment are also muddled. The relationship just doesn’t play as strong as the others.  Enhanced choices by John could be played as deception, adding to the already complicated interplay and improving Imogen’s choices as well.  That being said, Ryan delivers some delightful punchlines, and you almost feel sorry for John in the end.  Almost.

Selwyn’s relationship with his secretary, Christine Scott, played by Sierra June Christensen, is a fun beginning to the show. Although, I must admit it is a little confusing.  Be patient with it as you view the show, as it turned out to be an accurate portrayal, although appearing not well-defined in the beginning.  Sierra really captured the honesty of all of her relationships within the show, and without giving away the plot, is particularly good at not hiding it either.

And now, the Neighbor, Peter Fletcher, played deftly by Braden Nelsen.  This was my favorite performance of the night.  It is clean, crisp, and delightful.  The actor carries a smirk worth a thousand words.  I just want to add that I suspected him from the beginning.  You will just have to watch the show to see if I was right.

Sierra’s portrayal of the drunk Christine was the best alcohol performance of the night.  There is a lot of alcohol in this show.  It is integral to the plot, so if it offends, there is no way to culturally smooth it over.  However, the amount consumed by some of the other actors didn’t seem to affect them, not in quantity, or in the drinking of it.  I would have liked to see a little bit more of the effect of alcohol play into the confusion and unraveling at the end of the show.

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We left the theater thoroughly satisfied.  Director Reese Purser wove a tapestry of intrigue and movement and characterization worthy of the best mystery writer.  The music selection is on point.  Eighties fans, you will love that this is set in your favorite decade.  Just don’t miss the specificity of the music choice.  Purser didn’t just grab random songs from the era of amazing music, he made them speak to the plot.

You need to see this show.  Given the almost-capacity attendance of the Saturday evening performance, you need to get your tickets soon.  Murder by the Book is a delicious and decadent serving of plot twists, surprises, and intrigue.  Enjoy thinking you have it all figured out.

Covey Center for the Arts presents Murder by the Book by Duncan Greenwood & Robert King
Covey Center for the Arts, 425 West Center, Provo, Utah
Thursday-Saturday through August 19, 2017, 7:30 PM (The theater requests that you are in your seats by 7:20 due to the nature of the black box.)
Tickets: $16 for adults, $14 for students/senior/military
Box Office: 801-852-7007
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