Deathtrap 2

Playhouse West does a family-friendly Smoke and Mirrors.

With its remote location, brilliant and contested screenplay, and ready supply of deadly weapons, William Osborne and Anthony Herrera’s Smoke and Mirrors bears a distinct family resemblance to Ira Levin’s brilliantly twisty Deathtrap. There are other similarities too — a married couple with the cracks starting to show, a young and apparently naive man marked for extinction, a buffoonish outsider who threatens to blow open the whole intricate plan. Like Deathtrap, which recently played at San Leandro’s California Conservatory Theatre, Smoke and Mirrors mines the conventions of the mystery thriller for mind-boggling reversals and sly jabs at the entertainment industry. Smoke, which follows the machinations of writer Clark Robinson and producer and director Hamilton Orr as they scheme to rid themselves of the loutish movie star Derek Coburn, is a breakneck romp through Hollywood politics, New Age self-actualization, and marital fidelity.

Director Lois Grandi’s cast is solid, with Lois Hansen the most natural as Barbara, a Hollywood publicist with a very particular tic. She is always comparing things to the oddest and most drawn-out analogies. So the sheriff is told to imagine that a movie is like a church social, and Clark asked to conceive of his beloved screenplay as the world’s most perfectly-made basketball. Hansen sells what might ring false or overdone in other hands; we can see that this habit really irritates the people around her, but she believes in her images entirely.

Derek Lux as the young, high-jinks-prone stud Derek fits larger chunks of scenery into his mouth than one would think humanly possible. His character is absolutely the worst person to play the sensitive, nuanced Howard Howard-Lawton of Clark’s upcoming family drama Return to Vicksburg. The fictional Derek does a terrible accent and totally overplays his role in the impromptu rehearsal the men stage in the living room. He is pretty vile as a person too, waxing crass over the ta-tas of the young woman who brought him to the island in the water taxi. You can see why the others want him out of the way, yet Derek the actor is having such a good time oozing around the stage you feel bad to see him go. He is well offset by the three more “adult” men: nervous Clark (Morgan MacKay), smoothly scheming Hamilton (Chris Pflueger), and Robert Parnell as the blustering Sheriff Lumpkin (the similarity to “bumpkin” being a tad obvious).

Unlike its better-known predecessor, the Playhouse West production of Smoke never gets very scary. That may be because it’s consistently more humorous, or it may be a result of how director Grandi has chosen to play it here. Whatever the case, this is slightly more family-friendly than the darker Deathtrap. Set in a plush borrowed vacation house on a private island on the Gulf Coast (nicely realized by set designer Doug Ham, who has a chance to really open up and shine now that the company is using a bigger space), Smoke is improbable but funny, and the twists that aren’t as surprising cleverly conceal the ones that are.

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