Theater review: ‘Deathtrap’ mixes mayhem, suspense and dramatic surprises in revival

Jonathan L. Price

“Deathtrap,” now playing at the Sacramento Theater Company, is a drama revived from a long success on Broadway in the late 1970s — over 1,800 performances. It also sports a number of characters murdered, then revived from the dead. This is its dramatic stock in trade.

As Sacramento theatergoers enter the small space, they are confronted with a beautiful set looking like a very comfortable living room/den, displaying a desk with an electric typewriter and a phone with a receiver. There’s also a tool wall of sorts, with archaic weapons such as maces, Houdini handcuffs, a garrote, a crossbow, knives and antique guns. In a later scene, the desk has been replaced by a larger model, now with two facing typewriters, one a manual. All these elements of the past give the performance a kind of retro feel, with mentions of the “Merv Griffin Show,” of George Kauffman and the film “Sleuth.”

Theatergoers appear to be confronted with a retro form, the stage thriller, a kind of visual alternative to the detective novel. Only here, instead of trying to figure out who did it, as an audience we wonder which of the characters will do it next, and with what weapon (chosen from the toolkit on the back wall) and for what motivations. And then which of them will write about this planned or executed murder, turning it into a successful Broadway play. Each potential playwright has personal motivations, ranging from resentment to ego glorification, to jealousy, to greed, mixed together into an unpredictable and witty stew with often pointed criticism or knowledge of the theatre “industry.” Sidney Bruhl, the central character, remarks, “Darling, I may be capable of killing ... I’m not up to the criminal behavior of a Broadway producer.” He tosses up great lines like this with suitable sarcasm and suavity, easily mocking the medium in which he has previously tried to make his fortune.

Using necessarily the best exemplar, but the most prominent one, “Hamlet” is also features a play within a play, and eventually litters its stage with corpses. Here the corpses multiply, but frequently revive, forcing us to reconsider the plot, the motivations and our own judgments. Also, “Hamlet” wasn’t very funny; “Deathtrap” is.

With a notable poster of his successful play “Murder Game” on the back wall in that living room when we first encounter it, Bruhl, a formerly successful dramatist, is reading a “Deathtrap,” which a former student has sent him, and contemplating its inevitable success in contrast to his own recurring writer’s block and series of lackluster failures. He and his loving wife Myra contemplate various alternatives to this dilemma, in increasing stages of invention and skullduggery: read “murder” the playwright and steal his work.

Someone is nearly always lying, someone (perhaps another someone) is plotting, and someone else is making great effort to have a second or third party view these actions in a different way. At some level this play is a parody, of the thriller genre itself: its heightened suspense, its artificial situation, its reliance on low and predictable human motivations. We spend intricate time watching keys be put in, or out of locks, supposedly surreptitiously, or inadvertently, only to have these careful and trivial details reversed in interpretation several lines or scenes later.

But that’s only what seems to be happening. As we keep watching, the plot not only thickens, it twists and turns, and goes inside out (or whatever Moebius strip geometry applies to play twists) and we revise our opening estimates of the two main characters. There’s also the student playwright Clifford Anderson, the neighbor Helga Ten Dorp, a visiting psychic from Holland, and Sidney’s lawyer. In the imagined “plays” that emerge from this productive maelstrom, there are always five characters, and a first act full of mayhem, with a question of where such twisted plot strands might lead in a second act that actually never seems to get written.

These five characters, in all the “plays,” are directed admirably by Michael Laun. The acting performances are all superb, with great variations in facial expression, body language, stage action and inflection. Casey McClellan as Sidney Bruhl is nearly always on stage, and regularly talking in a stream that is always sophisticated, often full of puns and sarcasm, a kind of supercilious distance. And his acting skills are such that the shifting motivations are always temporarily convincing. Gail Dartez as Helga Ten Dorp is excellent in her pseudo-knowledgeable bumbling portrayal of a figure full of extrasensory knowledge and common-sense stupidity — regularly providing the comic relief to the recurrent pattern of murders, which she both predicts and misunderstands. At one point she offers a series of forecasts and predictions and, when asked, says she got them from a recent radio weather report.

For those liking their fillip of mayhem, suspense and dramatic surprises mixed with a bit of metatheater and combined with comedy, “Deathtrap” is ideal.

If you go

The play “Deathtrap” is currently showing at the Sacramento Theatre Company. It’s by Ira Levin, more familiar to American audiences through his novels, other plays, and films such as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Boys from Brazil,” and “The Stepford Wives.” This play opened November 6, and it runs through December 15.

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Tickets: The box office is at 1419 H. St., 916-443-6722.

Cost: Ticket prices range from $25 to $40.