It was a dark and stormy night ... and in an isolated Connecticut getaway, a playwright fretted over past glories and wondered if he would ever have another smash Broadway hit. So begins Ira Levin's Deathtrap, which pays homage to the classic thriller while maintaining a few very modern twists of its own. And while the play itself is somewhat dated -- written in 1978, it contains a major plot point that revolves around the quaint notion of carbon copies -- Louis Parnell's production for San Leandro's California Conservatory Theatre is tight and suspenseful.
Sidney Bruhl, known for a string of thrillers that have apparently relied for their impact on a vast collection of medieval weapons, is finding that "nothing recedes like success." It's been years since his last hit, and he grows ever more agitated that he has to live off his wife Myra's money. She is not pleased with the situation either, despite her protests to the contrary, and tensions in their cozy stable-turned-farmhouse are at an all-time high. Then the mail brings an unexpected boon. One of Sidney's summer seminar students -- "one of the twerps," to be exact -- has written a first play so good that "a gifted director couldn't even ruin it." He'd like Sidney to take a look. He's young, naive, and apparently hasn't told anyone that he's writing a play. A malign light bulb goes on in Sidney's head. Great script ... friendless nobody ... a wall full of antique implements liberally studded with knobs, spikes, and blades ... and a triumphant return to the high life for a famous writer and his wife. The problem is that once young, naive Clifford is brought out to the house for a little "script polishing," he has his own ideas about what happens next.
Where Myra stands is not entirely clear until things get ugly. Is she conspiring with her husband or not? Is she Lady Macbeth or a helpless bystander? Dylan Russell as Myra starts rather high-strung, which obfuscates the issue. A more subtle ramping-up might be in order, although Myra's archness and clear agitation from the start does give the audience warning that something very bad is about to happen. Russell also captures one of the play's few serious questions well: What happens when someone you thought you knew turns out to be very different than you expected? John Mercer's Sidney is genial and charismatic, although he occasionally goes too far -- there's an overplayed bit with trying to get something out of a desk, and some pacing-induced vocal mushiness on one of his last monologues.
Pat Parker is perfect as Dutch psychic and comic relief Helga Ten Dorp, bemoaning the downside of revealing one's psychic gifts early in life. "My parents did not wrap Christmas presents," she says sadly. "Why waste paper?" Joe Ford takes a little while to warm up as Clifford, but makes surprising transitions very nicely. Technically the show is sound, from Bud Sisson's convincing set to Parnell's super-spooky sound design. There's even some requisite thunder and lightning in the second act and the lights go out at dramatic moments, like any seaworthy thriller.
Deathtrap revels in its metatextuality, especially in the second act when two characters start talking about how a thriller is built. And there are in-jokes for the avid theatergoer, such as when Sidney references playwright George Kauffman, or Clifford points out that instead of antique weapons Arthur Miller's study might contain the sample cases of a salesman. It's almost a play-outside-a-play, and keeps the comic thread shining as the body count rises. Levin (who was also responsible for Rosemary's Baby and The Boys from Brazil) clearly had a case of what Sidney calls "thrilleritis malignus" when he wrote Deathtrap: a love for the genre that makes possible a tense, intricately plotted work that is also wittily satisfying in CCT's solid production.
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