BWW Review: Sierra Madre Playhouse Stages DEATHTRAP

Deathtrap/by Ira Levin/directed by Christian Lebano/Sierra Madre Playhouse/through February 20

Broadway had one of its greatest commercial hits and the longest running comedy-thriller with Ira Levin's Deathtrap in 1978, and it was later on film in 1982 with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Like Sleuth before it, Deathtrap makes a game out of murder with plot twists too numerable to mention, and adds just a small amount of comedy to make it all palatable. It's a play within a play, making it doubly intriguing to watch. Now on stage at Sierra Madre Playhouse, this new production of the classic is solid with fine direction from Christian Lebano and a resilient cast.

Playwright Sidney Bruhl (Christopher Cappiello) has dried up as of late and is in desperate need of a hit. Enter Deathtrap, a thriller penned by a former student Clifford Anderson (David Tolemy). Reading it and recognizing its great potential for success and money, Bruhl allows a whole batch of wicked ideas to take control of his brain. What follows are a collection of bizarre plot twists, which if I give away, will ruin your enjoyment of the play, so I won't. Suffice to say, Sidney has a wife Myra (Shaw Purnell), who wants him to succeed but has difficulty overall with violence and murder because of her weak heart. Anderson pays a visit to Sidney's Westport, Connecticut home, and the must witness for yourself. Blackouts, thunder, lightning, unexplained noises, screams, antiquated weapons... even a nosy psychic neighbor Helga Ten Dorp (Karesa McElheny), who delightfully intrudes at the most inopportune moments... it's all here for your enjoyment.

Cappiello is exacting and demonic as Sidney, his brain overworking 24/7, as he knows how to write and plan the perfect murder. Purnell is both intense and vulnerable as his incredulous wife. Tolemy makes Anderson at first likeable, but later more mysterious and dishonest, creating the ideal foil for Sidney's brilliant mastermind. McElheny is delicious as Helga, never missing a beat with her exaggerated gestures and delivery, yet so real as she reacts to everyone and everything. Don Savage has the small role of Porter Milgrim, Sidney's lawyer, who plays into the action more than at first glance. No such thing as a small or thankless part onstage! John Vertrees' set is wonderfully decorated with multiple theatre posters and a wide variety of weapons, contemporary and archaic, supposedly used through the years onstage in all of Bruhl's plays.

I have seen Deathtrap many, many times, and I never tire of the cat and mouse games played by the protagonists. The play is so attuned to the theatre, in its great as well as floundering moments. There are references and jokes about the casting of various roles, including how perfect Michael Caine would be as Sydney in the movie. But above all, as Bruhl and Anderson are collaborating, plotting and fleshing out their supposed mystery thriller, they are talking about the identical story elements and details that we are privy to have unfolding before our very eyes via Levin's clever script. Act I is excellently paced by director Christian Lebano with every surprise element in tact. Act II, however, is a tad static. Despite the energetic staging and the skillful moves of the two actors Cappiello and Tolemy, somehow their scenes become an expected give and take, lacking spontaneity and electricity. What the audience wants is a steadily driven one unanticipated surprise after the other. The leads need to open up and cut loose more to make the excitement pour forth. This will undoubtedly happen as the performances of the engagement continue to play out.

Go see Deathtrap! Yes, you may rent it on Netflix, but the live experience of the theatre has so much more charm and fun. Through Feburary 20 only!

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From This Author Don Grigware