By ALAN SMASON
Most lovers of literature will consider Ira Levin for his best-selling novels “Rosemary’s Baby” “The Stepford Wives,” “A Kiss Before Dying,” and “The Boys from Brazil,” all of which were transformed into successful films. But theatre lovers will almost always think of his well-crafted stage works and paramount among them is Deathtrap, which played for nearly four years on Broadway and won him an Edgar Award for playwriting.
It is a tautly-written comedy-thriller, which displays an impressive working knowledge of the theatre as well as the basics required for a riveting mystery with lots of unexpected twists and turns in the plot.
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) selected Deathtrap to finish its 2022 season at the Teatro Wego! Theater, the smaller of the two theaters it maintains on the West Bank in Westwego. (The larger Westwego Performing Arts Theater remains closed due to damage from Hurricane Ida.)
Veteran director and renowned actress Janet Shea directs a capable cast of five in this two-act play that teases its audience and gives the expression “I’d kill to…” new meaning.
Early on in Act One, it is revealed that Sidney Bruhl (David L. Haydel), an established mystery playwright with several Broadway hits under his belt, is having writer’s block. He not only can’t think of what to write, he remarks to his wife Myra (Reagan Lincoln) that an unproven writer named Clifford Anderson (Markis Blackwell) has sent him a copy of a sure-fire hit, a play titled Deathtrap that could practically produce itself and lead to a huge payday for the author.
Anderson took a playwriting seminar from Bruhl at a college the previous summer. In his cover letter, he acknowledges he couldn’t have authored the work without the inspiration he drew from Bruhl. He hurriedly sends Bruhl the unsolicited manuscript just as he’s finished it, letting it slip the copy machine was on the fritz . Only the original he has retained and the carbon copy attest to his authorship. The wheels begin turning in Bruhl’s mind. Certainly, he must have shared it with someone else. But, no, Anderson tells him. He will make copies soon, though.
Hoping to steal the work for himself, Bruhl begins to lay out possibilities of Anderson’s murder before that can occur. He tells Myra what he’s thinking and the action takes off from there. At first, the audience is unsure. Is Sidney merely speculating or really serious? Is Anderson that gullible to believe his mentor wouldn’t do him in and steal his handiwork? Can Myra talk her husband out of what he might be considering?
It’s also disclosed early in Act One that famous Dutch psychic Helga ten Dorp (Alison Logan) has moved in next door to the Bruhls to work on a book about her many consultations with the police across Europe that have helped to solve several celebrated murder cases.
The delicious delight in Deathtrap is the duplicitous and deadly double-dealing by which the dark characters deal with each other so dryly. Levin’s carefully constructed dialog belies the true intentions of the characters. Even though they might have articulated their motivations, we’re not sure what to expect and it’s their unexpected actions and the consequences that follow which keep the audience’s rapt attention.
Rounding out the cast of characters is Porter Milgrim (Carlos Gonzales), an attorney for the Bruhls. While the role is small, it is essential to explain the motivation of the characters and the work’s resolution.
As Sidney Bruhl, Haydel was good, but at times tentative. Blackwell’s performance was marked by youthful exuberance and could have used a bit more restraint in realizing the Clifford Anderson character. As Myra Bruhl, Lincoln did well, especially in her scene with Logan.
Logan is quite over-the-top, but very good as Ten Dorp. The character’s name is an obvious anagram of the word “portend” and is used for comic relief. Levin intends for her psychic powers to be legitimate and they contribute to the underpinning of the plot.
While Deathtrap references itself in the play, it turns out to be the McGuffin and much of the show’s twists and turns can’t be discussed without revealing spoilers. For those unfamiliar with the movie starring Michael Caine and the late Christopher Reeve or having not seen another version of the play, suffice it to say it will be an evening or afternoon of entertainment well spent.
Ira Levin’s Deathtrap (2 hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission), directed by Janet Shea, continues playing weekends from May 13 – 22 at the Teatro Wego! Theater, 177 Sala Avenue in Westwego. Friday and Saturday night performances are at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. For tickets, click here. For more information, dial 504-885-200.