Get caught up in Deathtrap

Santa Maria Civic Theatre's latest will chill you and make you laugh

click to enlarge Get caught up in Deathtrap
NEED A SHAVE? : Benjamin Oh (left) is Clifford Anderson and Alan Foster (right) is Sidney Bruhl in Santa Maria Civic Theatre’s production of Deathtrap.

There’s no suspense like live theater suspense, when the plot is unfolding right before your eyes. And there’s no better place for that kind of suspense than an intimate space, where you can feel like you’re right in the room with the characters—a space like Santa Maria Civic Theatre’s. The group’s latest production, Deathtrap, is a comedy-thriller by Ira Levin (perhaps most famous for penning the novel Rosemary’s Baby). It’s a wonderful conclusion to SMCT’s Golden Anniversary season.

premiered on Broadway in 1978, ran for1,809 performances, and was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award.

Sidney Lumet directed the 1982 film version, which starred Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon.

This isn’t the only Levin play to appear at SMCT. In 2000, the group’s production of Levin’s Veronica’s Room featured a 19-year-old performer named Brent M. Parker, who would later go on to become a theater critic for the Santa Maria Sun.

Wikipedia describes a “deathtrap” as “a literary and dramatic plot device in which a villain, who has captured the hero or another sympathetic character, attempts to use an elaborate and usually sadistic method of murdering him/her.”

Sidney Bruhl is a once-popular thriller playwright who has just suffered a string of flops. He receives a manuscript—also called Deathtrap—from an aspiring young playwright he once taught at a writing seminar. Sidney tells his wife, Myra, that Deathtrap is so brilliant “even a gifted director couldn’t ruin it.” He then adds—in an is-he-joking-or-not? sort of way—that he plans to kill the young writer and pass the play off as his own.

The play satirically and surreally points out the conventions of the theatrical thriller while still effectively using them to shock the audience. (It’s basically what the movie Scream later wound up doing to the slasher flick genre.)

click to enlarge Get caught up in Deathtrap
COMEDY AND MYSTERY: Valerie Pallai (left) manages to be wacky and serious as psychic Helga Ten Dorp, and Kelly Greenup (right) creates mounting panic as Myra Bruhl.
The characters comment that the play-within-the-play has five characters, and takes place on one set, in two “symmetrical” acts which contain three scenes each—all just like the play we’re watching. They also reference several real plays, most prominently Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth (1970), which similarly poked fun at genre conventions.

Alan Foster’s Sidney is a great main character. He has a hilarious, sardonic wit, making him charming and likable even when his thoughts turn dastardly. His nonchalance as he plots cold-blooded murder provides both laughs and chills, especially when contrasted with the hysteria of his wife, vividly realized by Kelly Greenup. Her ever-increasing panic heightens the audience’s. She also brings sincere emotion to the play, as she comes to see a very different side of her longtime husband.

Benjamin Oh captures the awe of an innocent young writer who gets to work with his idol—a perfect victim for Sidney. It’s difficult to say much more about his performance without spoiling the plot, but it’s all very good.

Valerie Pallai is Helga Ten Dorp, the eccentric celebrity psychic who just moved in next door to the Bruhls. Pallai gives a hilariously wacky performance—complete with funny accent—yet is grounded enough to maintain the seriousness of the pain and violence she senses in the Bruhls’ future.

Iain Freckleton plays Sidney’s lawyer, Porter. He’s the most serious character, though he has an opportunity for comedy late in the show, which he handles brilliantly.

A highlight of the production is the atmospheric and highly detailed set of Sidney’s study (credited to “The Director, Cast and Crew, and Mike Parsley”) decorated with pictures of Foster as Sidney posing with celebrities (seamlessly Photoshopped together), posters (or “window cards”) for Sidney’s various plays, and large, ominous display cases of antique weapons. Later on, there’s an antique typewriter that actually types words onto the paper (a nice touch—it looks like the character is really writing something).

Such attention to detail shows that Bob Larsen is a gifted director (and not in the ironic way that Sidney Bruhl meant it). His Deathtrap will have you on the edge of your seat, then push you over the edge and have you rolling in the aisles.

Freelancer Brent M. Parker bumped off an up-and-coming young critic and stole this review from him. You can reach him through his editor at [email protected].

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