By Dale King
Deathtrap, the wryly comic mystery by author/playwright Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, Stepford Wives), is at once easy and hard for a reviewer to critique.
The 1978 production won a Tony for Best Play, and begat a 1982 movie about the selfsame playwriting duo from the stage production that longs to create a ragingly successful Broadway thriller, even if blood must be shed.
The show is enthralling and frightening to the socially distanced and masked audiences at the Lake Worth Playhouse.
This is an easy play to review since the plot, though complex, is essentially linear. The hard part comes when the critic encounters the convoluted maze of enigmatic devices, any one of which may reveal an important clue and inadvertently expose the finale.
Deathtrap continues Lake Worth’s efforts to distance itself from the COVID blues that kept the downtown theatrical venue shuttered for more than a half year. It’s the third production since the Playhouse went limited live again with Annie and Always, Patsy Cline. Unlike the first two, this show can’t fall back on a musical score, but, instead, depends on the solid acting chops of a well-heeled, five-person cast.
Congrats are in order for director Clayton Phillips, returning to the playhouse where he directed such gems as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Cabaret and Inherit the Wind. Set/lighting designer Ardean Landhuis has fashioned a snug, yet eerily forbidding Connecticut abode with a plethora of wall-hanging weaponry – knives, guns, shields, a crossbow and other implements of destruction collected from plays written by the occupant, renowned playwright Sidney Bruhl.
Essentially, Sidney (David Turmarkin) is soaking his soul in alcohol after his latest play flopped – as did several previous efforts. Wife Myra (Kelly Williams) is there to reassure her luckless hubby that success may be just a few typewriter strokes away.
Deathtrap is slightly dated with a passing reference to the Merv Griffin TV show, a dial telephone on the desk and, yes, real typewriters on Sidney’s desk.
Actually, success might be right in Sidney’s hands – a manuscript for a play called Deathtrap, written and mailed to him by one of the play crafter’s students, which Sidney deems to be a guaranteed smash hit and the key to revived stage glory.
But is triumph worth killing for? Could Sidney dare to cause the demise of the young student scribe, Clifford Anderson (Tom Copeland), who banged out the text on a Smith-Corona? With a sadistic glint in his eye, Sidney should at this point have cackled an Oil Can Harry laugh for thinking what he’s thinking.
Feigning that he doesn’t remember Clifford, Sidney phones and invites him over to talk collaboration.
Arriving from the Westport train station, Clifford seems your average 1970s kid – benign, polite, appropriately dressed, absolutely safe. Or is he?
Turmarkin and Copeland are delightfully evil as writers who inflict hurt with words as well as weaponry. Their non-stop efforts to become the alpha partner keep the tension high.
Williams plays Myra as the sensitive sort, the polar opposite of Sidney, who, when not thinking about writing, seems largely possessed with himself.
Secondary characters get fine performances, too. Lenore Goldfeder plays psychic Helga Ten Dorp as slightly daft, but so close to the mark that she can’t be ignored. Brent Balcomb is sharp as Sidney’s lawyer Porter Milgrim, who becomes aware of the nefarious goings-on.
Deathtrap is playing through March 7 at the Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth Beach. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 561-586-6410 or visiting www.lakeworthplayhouse.org.