Witty, self-referential, and a sly commentary on the mystery thriller genre, Ira Levin’s Deathtrap has been stunning audiences for almost thirty years. It is, as its protagonist Sidney Bruhl says, so well written that “even a gifted director couldn’t mess it up.” Two acts, five characters, one room, a dark and stormy night, power outages, an inheritance, and a couple of killer plot twists make this a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, whoever does it.
Yet the Willows goes above and beyond the call of duty on this production. The acting is tight, the pacing is good, and the design elements all work — especially Jon Retsky’s spooky lighting and Tom Benson’s yummy set, studded with at least three dozen bladed, blunt, shiny, knobbly weapons.
The first act goes gangbusters. Once-successful playwright Sidney Bruhl is having an extended dry spell, and hopes that the thriller Deathtrap will bring him back to his former glory. The problem is that Deathtrap is not his: It’s a first effort from Clifford Anderson, a twerp in one of Bruhl’s playwriting workshops. So Bruhl sets about luring said twerp to his cozy-yet-isolated country home, where he may or not kill the younger man with one of the many deadly instruments that grace the walls. So far, so good. Sidney’s wife, Myra (the nimble-faced Sandra Jardin), hates the idea (in some productions she is played as a more willing accessory, both interesting choices), her barely restrained anxiety swelling to fill the audience and ratchet up the tension. Levin’s dialogue is as sharp and shiny as the axe on Sidney’s wall, and Stephen Klum as Sidney really works it with an impressive vocal range of little warbles and volume shifts. The venom he drips as he reads Clifford’s letter comes in a dozen flavors.
The second act, however, runs up against a piece of misguided caution that drastically lessens its potential impact.Without giving away the plot twist, there are two characters who need to have a sexual charge — and that doesn’t happen in this production. Which is a real shame, because without seeing that tension acted out a little — without something a little more substantial than the pat on the face in the current blocking — it doesn’t make sense that the participants are together, and the drama unravels. Perhaps director Richard Elliott is worried that his Contra Costa audience can’t handle it, but they’ve shown they can handle a lot, something the Diablo Light Opera Company has proved in Walnut Creek lately with its well-attended productions of La Cage aux Folles and Miss Saigon. These audiences can take some strong language, some “adult situations”; the kiss that made the movie version famous won’t require paramedics standing by.
The second act isn’t as tautly written as the first, either, which is no fault of the Willows. But the story has been updated slightly from the 1975 version so it doesn’t seem implausible — for example, here Clifford’s computer has crashed, which explains why there are no inconvenient backup copies of his script. There are also a couple of cute Miss Cleo references that don’t seem at all out of place. If you’ve somehow managed to miss Deathtrap up until now, you could do worse than this stylish production.