.Review: ‘Deathtrap’ is a Triumph of Comic Suspense

Jewel Theatre’s season finale grabs the audience and doesn’t let go

Prepare to be fooled. Prepare to be shocked. Prepare to jump right out of your seat—more than once. That’s exactly what Deathtrap, the Jewel Theatre season finale, intends to make you do. So hold on tight and enjoy the ride.

Written in the late 1970s by Ira Levin, Deathtrap ran on Broadway for a whopping four years, and from where I sat at last week’s Jewel opener, it’s easy to see why. Okay, some lines that were fresh when they were written might seem a bit dated today. Never mind. The scenery-chewing thriller still packs a grisly comic punch, and I wasn’t alone screaming out loud on opening night at some of the stunning plot reversals.

Clever and then some, the play balances on a self-referential premise: it’s all about the devious scheming that goes into writing the exact play that we’re watching unfold before our eyes. And during the course of two hours of terrorizing, flattering, extorting, drinking, betraying and lying, you’ll laugh and gasp and wonder just how the hell the whole thing will end. Unless you’ve seen the play, or the stylish 1982 film version starring Michael Caine, you won’t guess what ultimately happens even at the very end.

On an inviting set (kudos to Rick Ortenblad) we meet playwright Sidney Bruhl (Rolf Saxon), a former stage legend who hasn’t had a hit in over a decade. As the play opens, Bruhl confesses to his wife Myra (Julie James) that a student has sent him a manuscript that has “Broadway blockbuster” written all over it. Reminiscing about his past triumphs, Bruhl surveys the mementos of previous thrillers he’s written—antique guns and knives, axes and crossbows mounted along the walls. What could go wrong? As he tells his wife (whose personal wealth has been keeping the couple financially afloat for many years) about this manuscript, he becomes intrigued by the idea of collaborating with its author. Bruhl’s career would be thereby revived, and the young novice would have his first theatrical credit.

Enter the young playwright, Clifford Anderson (Shaun Carroll), who is flattered by the veteran writer’s interest, and discussion about a future alliance begins. As the conversation started to take a woozy turn, opening night’s audience got its first taste of the play’s “things are seldom what they seem” sleight of hand.

secure document shredding

Oh, and there are two other characters, a snoopy next-door neighbor who happens to be a Scandinavian psychic, played for very broad and well-placed laughs by Diahanna Davidson, and the Bruhl’s attorney, neatly played by Kurt Meeker. As the psychic prowls around the premises, she immediately predicts future disaster. The thunder and lightning special effects echo that sentiment. We all know something ominous is in store, ominous despite moments of outrageous humor. We just don’t know just how and when disaster will erupt.

The first act’s pacing will pick up after a few more performances, but opening night gained both mystery and momentum in the second act when absolutely nothing is what it seems to be. And the breakneck reversals cascade into even more reversals.

Since the entire play depends upon shock and surprise, there’s little I can reveal. But here’s what I can tell you: all the actors in this wickedly funny whodunit are terrific. Expert physical comics, they spar and sparkle their way through the twists and turns, while we’re all holding our breath. For my money, the play belongs to the virtuoso sarcasm of Rolf Saxon. His Sidney Bruhl is mordant, brilliant, drinks too much and fantasizes wearily about future success. But he’s not too weary to stop inventing puns and jokes that he relishes as much as we do. In big, burnished tones Saxon wraps his mouth around his words and exhales them in acid-drenched pronouncements. He is completely delicious. Not too proud to scheme, his character convinces us all to follow him into fiendishly well-written mayhem.

Deathtrap is a gem of comic suspense and the Jewel Theatre production is loaded with the actors, the set and the wicked props to deliver. Don’t miss it!‘Deathtrap,’ by Ira Levin. Directed by Nancy Carlin. Playing at the Jewel Theatre through July 31. JewelTheatre.net

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