By Fran Syverson
Wow! Talk about a killer play! “Deathtrap” comes alive (and brings death) in this compelling comedic mystery now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
To describe the plot’s many twists, turns, and surprises would take away all the fun of watching it unfold. The story is literally a story-within-a-story-within-a-story.
And it all begins with a story that Sidney Bruhl cannot find the words to write. A playwright, he is suffering severely from writer’s block, following his latest three flops. Then, fortuitously, a young writer asks him to read his first attempt. A nearly perfect attempt, Sidney decides when he reads Clifford Anderson’s script. Oh, he would kill to be able to write such a good mystery himself!
Kill? Would he? An off-hand jesting remark begins to germinate in Sidney’s mind. With his wife Myra’s encouragement, he invites Clifford to come to their remote Connecticut home to discuss collaborating on fine-tuning the neophyte’s script.
And that is as much of the plot that I can divulge! What I can say is that the five actors do justice to this classic mystery. One might almost feel transported to its 1978 premier that launched the longest running comedy-thriller on Broadway, with 1,793 performances.
“Deathtrap” is not for faint of heart, as every astonishing twist brings new tensions. Yet the scares are leavened with lots of humor, as evidenced by the audience’s gales of laughter.
Christopher Cappiello plays Sidney as the frustrated, desperate man he is, searching for a way out of his creative abyss. Conniving, placating, enraged – Cappiello embodies all this and more. But look out for Shaw Purnell! As she ranges from being the clingy, supportive wife Myra to her vehement screaming in terror, she grips our hearts.
David Tolemy brings youthful energy to his role as Clifford, along with conveying his bent toward deceit, violence, and seductiveness.
Then there is Helga Ten Dorp, a next-door visitor and self-described psychic. Tall, bald, with ghoulish, eerie eye makeup, she is the catalyst for much of the rising tension in this nail-biter of a tale. “Beware the boots!” she says, and she is right. Karesa McElheny has even us believing in her mystical powers, so convincing is she.
Don Savage has a cameo role as Porter Milgrim, Sidney’s attorney who convincingly brings ominous financial news.
An excellent cast and their performances are only part of the picture. “Deathtrap” owes much of its success also to the fine crew behind the scenes. As the play opens, the stage is set for the mayhem that ensues. Sidney’s walls showcase weaponry such as that he had researched for his earlier plays – a mace, revolvers, a crossbow. Less proudly, he also displays framed playbill covers of his ill-fated plays. A massive, gray stone fireplace dominates the living room, warm fire aglow. John Vertrees brought the set to life, so to speak, with Erin Walley assisting.
The lighting, music, and sound effects are so well-integrated into the plot that they are virtually part of the cast. Pablo Santiago is lighting designer, Sean Paxton the composer, and Barry Schwam the sound effects designer who makes you wish you had brought your umbrella to shield you from the storm!
Christian Lebano directed “Deathtrap,” and produced it along with Estelle Campbell and Alexandra Wright and assistant producer Jackson Kendall. Kristin Bolinski is stage manager, assisted by Emily Hopfauf. Vicki Conrad designed the costumes, and must have had special fun with psychic Helga’s distinctive garb. Ken Merckx’s talents as choreographer serve well in the fight episodes. Dialect coach is Deborah Ross Sullivan. Diane Siegel curated the foyer exhibits relevant to “Deathtrap,” including some fun opportunities for selfies in frames.
“Deathtrap” is based on a book by Ira Levin. You may have seen its 1982 movie adaptation starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon.
Performances run weekends through Feb. 20. Curtain time is 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. For reservations or more information call (626) 355-4318 or visit the website, www.sierramadreplayhouse.org, for online ticketing. Reservations for groups of 10 or more can be made at the same phone number. Admission is $30 general, $27 for seniors (65+), $17 for children 12 and under. The Playhouse is located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. Eateries and free parking are nearby.