Ira Levin’s clever comedy-thriller Deathtrap lasted nearly 1,800 performances after it opened on Broadway in 1978. Its clever twists and turns still earn gasps and surprised muttering from folks who have managed not to experience the play (or the movie) over the past 35 years.
Stage Door Theatre has brought Deathtrap back to life, effectively enough that the gasps and the muttering from the newbies are earned. But the script’s surprises aren’t surprising more than once, so for those who know Deathtrap, a production’s pleasures need to come from the acting and execution of Levin’s script. By that measure, Stage Door’s Deathtrap is a less-than-thrilling thriller.
The two-act, five-character play orbits around Sidney Bruhl (Kevin Reilley), a once-successful playwright whose gift for turning out clever stage thrillers seems to have deserted him. Sidney’s concerned, jittery wife Myra (Janet Weakley) is paying the bills as her hubby searches for his next big idea.
That idea comes to him, practically gift-wrapped, thanks to a former student and aspiring playwright. Clifford Anderson (Shane R. Tanner) took a seminar with Sidney, and he has mailed his teacher the finished script of his first play, a two-act, five-character thriller titled — wait for it — Deathtrap.
As the play is set in 1978, before the era of personal computers, Sidney and Clifford work on typewriters, using carbon paper or copiers to make multiple copies of their scripts. Clifford has sent Sidney the carbon copy of his original — the copy machine was broken, he notes — so Sidney realizes that there are just two copies of Deathtrap.
The older playwright tells his wife he’s sure Deathtrap will be a massive hit. A hit to die for. So he summons Clifford to his office, a converted stable whose walls are conveniently covered with the kind of weaponry used in Sidney’s long-ago smashes. And he tells Clifford to bring the Deathtrap original, sending the observant Myra’s nervousness into the stratosphere.
There’s much more to Deathtrap, but revealing more would kill the fun for the uninitiated, so we’ll leave the twisted tale there.
Director Hugh M. Murphy gets solid performances from Reilley and Tanner, whose characters share a secret. Reilley could deepen Sidney’s jealous, manipulative nature, though, and Tanner could communicate a bit more of Clifford’s sneakiness.
Weakley is not a strong Myra; she seems always to be acting the part of the nervous wife, and the complicated relationship between Myra and Sidney never seems credible. Paula Sackett goes way overboard with the eccentricity of Helga ten Dorp, a busybody psychic whose observations make the guilty even more nervous. Glen Lawrence is grounding and quite good in the small role of Porter Milgrim, Sidney’s lawyer.
Deathtrap is that rarity, a comic stage thriller that provides plenty of laughs and some real spine-tingling turns. But if you know the play, Stage Door’s production is unlikely to remind you why Levin’s script was such a hit.