For a record-breaking four years, New York audiences found themselves both riveted and tickled to death by the multitude of plot twists and turns in Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, that is when they weren’t laughing in utter delight at the sheer brilliance of Levin’s five-character, one-set, two-act mystery-comedy, still the longest running thriller in Broadway history.  Angelinos can now find out what all the excitement was about simply by driving down to San Pedro to catch Little Fish Theatre’s terrific revival of the comedy-suspense classic.

Our hero is Sidney Bruhl (David Graham), author of the smash hit Broadway thriller The Murder Game—and the four flops that followed it. He and wife Myra (Libby West) are currently living a quiet life in Westport, Connecticut, where Bruhl is trying in vain to write hit #2, the perfect five-character, one-set, two-act thriller, a play just like the one we’re watching at Little Fish. 

This bit of self-reference is only one of Deathtrap’s countless winks at the audience.  Yes, indeed, the play Sidney is trying to write is the very one we’re seeing, though who exactly wrote the final product is not revealed until Deathtrap’s ultimate plot twist in the final scene.

That, dear readers, is about as close to a spoiler as you’ll find in this review.  In fact, during Deathtrap’s 1978-1982 Broadway run, a program note told theatergoers, “We hope Deathtrap holds a few surprises for you, and, if it does, that you’ll help us keep them as surprises for future audiences.”  StageSceneLA is glad to comply.

Still, the following can be revealed without giving away too much of Deathtrap’s deliciously twisting storyline:  

Sidney has received a play in the mail, coincidently titled Deathtrap, written by a former student of his. He tells Myra that since Deathtrap is precisely the play he’s been trying to write for lo these many flops, perhaps it might not be such a bad idea to murder poor Clifford Anderson (Cody Roberts), and present the play as his own.

Since Deathtrap is set in the pre-Microsoft 1970s, there are only two copies of Clifford’s play in existence, the original and the carbon which he has sent to Sidney.  (Conveniently, the fledgling writer says he’s waiting for Sidney’s suggestions to Xerox additional copies.) All Sidney has to do, should he decide to go through with his deadly intentions, is do the talented would-be playwright in, and presto, Sidney Bruhl will have another smash hit on his hands.

Complicating matters for Sidney is next-door psychic Helga ten Dorp, who senses “pain and death” in the writer’s study, particularly when she sees the large collection of daggers, guns, battle-axes, maces, and crossbows decorating the study walls, mementos of Sidney’s previous plays.  The five-character cast is completed by Porter Milgrim (Jack Messenger), Sidney’s lawyer, who pops in later in the play.

Like any mystery thriller worth its salt, Deathtrap keeps its audience guessing about what will happen next. Like anygreat mystery thriller, it make sure that audience will be wrong 99% of the time.  Lucky are the Deathtrap virgins who will be seeing the play at Little Fish for the first time.  Almost equally lucky, though, are those rediscovering Deathtrap’s many unexpected plot twists, or watching for clues and red herrings with the wisdom of foreknowledge. Nostalgia lovers can also enjoy the play’s many “contemporary” pop culture references (to Merv Griffin, David Merrick, Sleuth, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, etc.) which now make it a perfect period piece.  (The Little Fish production cleverly substitutes Michael Caine’s name for George C. Scott’s in imagining the future movie version of Clifford’s play, and film fans know that Caine did indeed star in Deathtrap The Movie alongside Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon.)

Director Richard Perloff maintains just the right suspenseful tone, keeping Deathtrap firmly rooted in reality even when Levin is having his most fun with his characters and audience. (Fans of the movie adaptation may be surprised to discover that the film’s most talked-about bit of business is not in the original play.  This production hints at it; I would have liked for a more explicit staging a la movie version. It is, after all, 2009.) As for the cast’s performances, they are pitch-perfect all around.

Graham’s delightfully volatile work as Sidney is as multicolored and commanding as it gets, the actor giving just enough suggestion of a major Sidney-related surprise to make it thoroughly credible when it is revealed.   Roberts more than holds his own against Graham, combining boyish charm and sex appeal, and occasional hints of menace.  As Graham’s earnest, supportive wife, West is, as always, a joy to watch.  Jones steals every scene she’s in with her oh-so colorful portrait of Dutch psychic Helga. Messenger completes the excellent cast in masterly fashion. 

Staci Walter’s set design nicely replicates Sidney’s weapon-festooned study and, as always, Little Fish’s stage configuration makes the audience feel that they are right there in the same room as the characters.  Richard Taylor’s lighting deserves kudos as well, moving from afternoon to evening to late night, with a blackout or two and some nicely timed flashes of lighting to up the suspense.  Georgina Kester’s sound design features great mood music from Bernard Herrmann film scores, and the requisite thunder to accompany Taylor’s lighting.  (The offstage opening-and-closing-door sound effect could be improved, and better timed to actors’ entrances and exits.)  Claire Townsend’s costumes are very good as well, though is Myra’s slip meant to show throughout the first act?  

Much as I enjoy a great world premiere play, I must confess a special affection for one that’s tried-and-true, especially when I am discovering it for the first time. On Tuesday I saw my first stage production of Steel Magnolias. Last night I got to see Deathtrap on stage for the first time ever.  I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening at the theater than with a contemporary classic done right. It matters not a whit whether you’ve already seen Deathtrap the movie, Deathtrap the play, both, or neither.  Veterans and newbies alike are likely to enjoy every moment of this delectable treat of a thriller.

Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St. San Pedro. 

–Steven Stanley
October 9. 2009

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