By Dale King
For a play that focuses largely on murder, Deathtrap is really a pretty fun show.
Not good clean fun, though. This chilling whodunit penned by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, Stepford Wives) now playing at the Delray Beach Playhouse does involve the spilling of substantial theatrical blood.
What’s probably most enjoyable about Deathtrap is the fact that it keeps you guessing throughout about how the whole thing will end. And because it’s meant to scare and surprise everyone in the audience – which was quite crowded with mystery devotees on opening night – it’s a show you can see repeatedly and probably find new elements each time.
The 1978 production won a Tony for Best Play, and begat a 1982 movie about the selfsame playwriting duo who long to create a ragingly successful Broadway thriller, even if blood must be shed.
Delray Beach Playhouse has harnessed an excellent, five-person cast for the two-act show made up of three scenes in each act. (For some reason, such symmetry seems particularly important to the lead players.)
DPB has a long-standing reputation of producing suspense thrillers better than most community showhouses. Deathtrap is no exception. The two male leads — Michael Coppola as Sidney Bruhl and Mark-Anthony Scolaro as Clifford Anderson — evince wrenchingly good chemistry. At the same time, a Delray Playhouse veteran — Charlotte Sherman — who hasn’t been seen for a while, returns – and is just as talented as ever — playing the enigmatic neighbor, Helga Ten Dorp, a cryptic gentlelady who allegedly possesses ESP, and plays that claim to the hilt.
The play begins innocently enough in an opulent, Westport, Conn., home whose walls are festooned with playbills from various mystery productions along with a collection of lethal weaponry — knives, guns, shields, a crossbow and other implements of destruction collected from shows written by the occupant, renowned playwright Sidney Bruhl.
With him is his tense, not terribly healthy wife, Myra (Christine Smith), who is commiserating with her mate about his recent run of flops. Suddenly, he shows her a manuscript received from one of his students (Anderson) that Bruhl assesses as a guaranteed success. If only he had written it, he muses. But would he kill to put his moniker on it? Hmmmm.
His wife fears he might — and later, when Bruhl arrives home after picking Anderson up at the train station for a tete-a-tete about the potential of a joint writing effort, Sidney apparently does just that — strangling the student with a garotte.
Time passes as the heinous act sinks in. When Myra later gets up to check the front doorway, she pulls back the curtains and Anderson appears to her, frighteningly, upright in the doorway, filthy from being buried in the backyard. Armed with a stick, he appears to beat Sidney to death. Thunderstruck, Myra dies of a heart attack.
Soon after her death, Sidney and Clifford – who have obviously been in cahoots all along — settle in as roommates and co-playwrights in the Westport death house. They collaborate on turning Deathtrap into a living play, but each seems to be working for himself.
In Act II, tensions soar amid a crashing thunderstorm. During this cacophony, psychic Ten Dorp revisits to warn that she is having visions of terrible pain coming from the Bruhl home. Porter Milgrim (David Zide), Sidney’s attorney, throws his own suspicions on Clifford by alerting Sidney that he saw the boy secretively lock what appeared to be a manuscript in his desk drawer.
Is this a script for Deathtrap? Is the boy a collaborator or a conspirator? And is Deathtrap really worth killing for, one might ask — again?
From this point on, the action shifts to games and quirky antics as Levin’s sinuous story unwinds, trumping Agatha Christie for the number of plot twists. The show descends to a ring-around-the-rosy conclusion that may not please everyone. But the effort, as a whole, is thought-provoking and entertaining.
Randolph DelLago again steps forward as director of Levin’s production. Plaudits are in order for Coppola and Scolaro, who are delightfully evil as writers who inflict hurt with words as well as weaponry. Their non-stop efforts to become the alpha partner in the maliciously contrived deal keep the tension high.
Sherman — back after too long a departure — portrays Ten Dorp as slightly daft, but so close to the mark that she can’t be ignored. Smith plays Myra as the sensitive sort, the polar opposite of Sidney, who, when not thinking about writing, seems largely possessed with himself. Zide is sharp as lawyer Porter, who becomes aware of the nefarious goings on. Only by then, it’s too late to change it — or to cash in.
Stage manager/lighting designer Sonia Buchanan has fashioned a snug, yet eerily forbidding Connecticut abode on the Delray Beach Playhouse stage, with assistance from master carpenter Jeff Davis, scenic designer Cindi Blank Taylor and lots of other talented hands.
DEATHTRAP runs through April 3 at the Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th St. in Delray Beach. Tickets are $38 and can be purchased online at delraybeachplayhouse.com, or by phone at 561-272-1281.