BWW Review: The Nonstop Twists and Turns in Garden Theatre's DEATHTRAP Are Both Trick and Treat
DEATHTRAP gets off to a slow start, but by Scene Two - when the third of five characters enters the action - it launches into a fast-paced saga of twists, turns, and fatalities.
That third character is Clifford, a promising young student who's just written a killer murder mystery script and shared it with only two people: washed-up playwright Sidney and his wife Myra.
Sidney's hungry for a hit on a stage... and Clifford doesn't have any family members who might come looking for him. But Sidney has a nosy neighbor who also happens to be a crime-solving psychic.
Hilarity and homicide ensue, but in ways you won't see coming, with so many plot twists and misdirects that even an audience with ESP might gasp, as the Garden's sold-out house did all night long. Well, most of the house.
At one point, Sidney wonders whether murder is an aphrodisiac. The older gentleman next to me turned to his wife and said, loudly enough for half the theatre to hear, "I guess we know what we're doing tonight!"
They did not come back for Act II. Orlando is on alert.
Ira Levin's 1978 comedy-thriller is the genre's longest-running on Broadway, having earned rave reviews in its original run and later on the big screen, starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. This month, it's on stage at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden, just in time for Halloween.
DEATHTRAP is very much a work of the 70s, but the Garden comes to its audience's aid with a lexicon for long-forgotten references to pop culture and technology (included in each patron's program). And under Katrina Ploof's direction, the Garden finds subtle ways to ameliorate Levin's sense of shyness about homosexuality whenever the topic comes up.
The laughs here are gentle, and the dialogue does that thing that plays are wont to do - relying on unconvincing dialogue and heavy-handed exposition to move the plot forward. At times, it feels that actors Stephen Lima (as Sidney Bruhl) and Christine M. Gervais (as Myra Bruhl) are reciting lines. Unfortunately, the material lends itself to that, especially in the early parts of the play (and I suspect opening-night jitters were haunting the stage too).
But then DEATHTRAP is a play within a play, and it's when its murders go meta that the script really comes alive. In Act II, the characters muse on Act I's weaknesses, so the slow start and stilted exchanges suddenly seem justified. Anyway, by then, you've already been won over by the intrigue of it all, and any jitteriness on the parts of Lima or Gervais has long since ebbed away.
As the up-and-coming Clifford, Andrew Romano (who audiences may recognize from his role in The Florida Project) immediately stands out as a real acting talent. He gives the character an earnest boyishness that naturally skews devious, as boyishness tends to do.
Later, Tatiana Sophia Eriksen adds just a dash of the madcap with her Madame Acarti-ish turn as the clairvoyant Helga ten Dorp. I was glad, too, to see more of Bob Brandenburg after he made an impression with a small role in last year's Halloween show here, The Birds. He punctuates his several scenes in DEATHTRAP quite nicely as Porter Milgrim, attorney at law.
To tell you anything more about the show itself would be to rob you of its many reveals, so I will close instead with admiration for this production's technical merits. The Garden knows how to set a scene. Orlando's ODD•O•T players were back for preshow entertainment on Plant Street, giving opening night the air of an event.
Inside, the setting - a Colonial stable converted into a charming writer's retreat - looks as warm and cozy as Disney's The Wilderness Lodge and as lavishly detailed as anything Disney's Imagineers might make. I felt the need to go up and take a gander after curtain call (maybe because on some level it sings the eerie siren song of The Great Northern on TV's "Twin Peaks"). This marks scenic designer Robert F. Wolin's Garden debut, his long trail of Broadway and off-Broadway credits evident up on the stage. Lighting designer Erin Miner and sound designer Jack Audet lend their skill to the spooky, stormy climate that makes this DEATHTRAPH ripe for October. And maybe it helps that stage manager Sherri Cox is a paranormal investigator in her free time.
DEATHTRAP runs at the Garden through October 27, 2019. It's the most fun anyone can have with murder this side of Cabot Cove. Visit the official theatre website for ticket information.
What did you think of DEATHTRAP at Garden Theatre? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photos by Steven Miller Photography, courtesy of Garden Theatre