Thrills and chills and gasp-worthy plot twists galore highlight the topnotch revival of Ira Levin’s Broadway suspense classic Deathtrap now exciting and delighting audiences on the proscenium stage of the historic Sierra Madre Playhouse.
To this day the longest running thriller in Broadway history, Deathtrap riveted New Yorkers (and tickled them to death) for a record-breaking four years from 1978 to 1982.
Our 40something hero is Sidney Bruhl (Christopher Cappiello), author of the smash hit Broadway thriller The Murder Game and the four flops that followed it, currently living a quiet life in Westport, Connecticut alongside wife Myra (Shaw Purnell) while trying in vain to write hit #2, the perfect five-character, one-set, two-act thriller. (That this describes to a T the play we’re watching at SMP is only one of Deathtrap’s countless meta-winks at the audience.)
Sidney has recently received a script in the mail, coincidently titled Deathtrap, written by a former student of his, and since this is precisely the play he’s been trying to write for lo these many flops, he suggests to Myra that it might not be such a bad idea to murder its author Clifford Anderson (David Tolemy), 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 before Xeroxing additional copies.) All Sidney has to do, should he decide to go through with his deadly intentions, is send the hunky would-be playwright to his maker, and presto, Sidney Bruhl will have another smash hit on his hands.
Complicating matters for Sidney is next-door psychic Helga ten Dorp (Karesa McElheny), 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 (Don Savage), Sidney’s lawyer, who pops by in Act Two.
Like any mystery thriller worth its salt, Deathtrap keeps its audience guessing about what will happen next … and insuring they will be wrong 99% of the time. Lucky indeed are Deathtrap virgins seeing the play for the first time, though almost equally fortunate are those rediscovering Deathtrap’s many unexpected plot twists, or watching for clues and red herrings with the wisdom of foreknowledge.
Director Christian Lebano sets precisely the right light-but-suspenseful tone from the get-go in addition to taking Deathtrap into sexier territory than 1970s audiences might have been up for.
Leading man Cappiello’s silver-foxy Sydney makes you believe each and every one of Deathtrap’s unexpected twists, particularly those involving talented Yale School Of Drama grad Tolemy, whose acting chops match his sex appeal.
Purnell gives Myrna a dithery pluck that suits the character’s strengths as well as her weak heart, McElheny is a ditzy, English-mangling treat as Helga, and Sierra Madre regular Savage is his usual stalwart self as Porter.
Scenic designer John Vertrees and assistant scenic designer/properties designer Erin Walley have joined talents to create a magnificent rendition of Sydney’s stable-turned-study, its walls festooned with both weapons and lobby cards, aided by scenic painter Orlando de la Paz
Lighting design whiz Pablo Santiago’s lightning flashes are complemented by sound effects designer Barry Schwam’s gasp-inducing thunderclaps and Sean Paxton’s stylish, suspenseful musical underscoring. Vicki Conrad’s costumes are just-right late ‘70s creations. Ken Merckx’s fight choreography makes for some exciting tussles. Deborah Ross Sullivan is dialect coach.
Deathtrap is produced by Estelle Campbell, Lebano, and Alexandra Wright. Jackson Kendall is assistant producer. Kristin Bolinski is stage manager and Emily Hopfauf is assistant stage manager and wardrobe mistress. Walley is assistant production manager.
In these 21st-century days when a two-or-three-month run is just about all a Broadway play can hope for, Deathtrap’s 1,793 performances seem positively miraculous by comparison. Check out Sierra Madre Playhouse’s Grade-A revival to see why Ira Levin’s Greatest Hit is still going strong in 2016.
Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.
January 22, 2016
Photos: Gina Long