A handsome desk dominates the room, and tasteful antiques are arrayed around a Persian carpet, but the walls are a monument to mayhem. A medieval crossbow hangs next to a mace; a giant ax tops the doorway, and a dagger, a rope and a revolver are like Clue pieces come to deadly life.
But the room is not the lair of a murderer--at least not yet. In between the weapons are framed posters touting plays with the most violent of titles: Gun Play. Death Lives. Murder's Child. Gunpoint. Every last one of these murderous thrillers is the work of the playwright who lives here, one Sidney Bruhl, the hero--or antihero--of Deathtrap, a crackling murder play that opened last weekend at Live Theatre Workshop. (It's the second local production of Deathtrap this year; Tucson Theatre Ensemble performed the play last spring.)
Written in 1978 by Ira Levin, author of Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, this witty entertainment poses a devilish question: Who would be better able to execute the perfect murder than a playwright like Bruhl? He knows the workings of every weapon in his collection. He's offed people by the dozen in his plays. He knows how to hide the evidence.
And Bruhl (played by Bill Epstein) just may have a motive. His plays were once the toast of Broadway, but it's been years since a hit rolled off his electric typewriter. (The year is 1978.) Mortified to be living on his wife's money, Bruhl is desperate for a good play. One day, as if in answer to his prayers, a perfect play lands on his desk. Only it's not his.
A young man who studied with the playwright in a summer workshop has mailed his new thriller--also called Deathtrap, naturally--to the older man for his comments. It's so brilliant that the envious Bruhl ponders how he could pass it off as his own. And maybe he can, if only he could get rid of its author ...
It's a delicious setup, but this is hardly a play that proceeds in orderly fashion, Agatha Christie-style, from A to B to C, from murder to investigation to arrest. At one point, the young playwright, Clifford Anderson (Kevin Lucero Less), remarks that he hates plays in which the audience can guess the murderer at the get-go. So does Levin.
The setting may be classic murder-mystery country house, but Levin twists and turns the plot in wildly unexpected directions. One scene is so shocking that before the play starts, the theatre manager jokingly offers to provide smelling salts at intermission to anyone who faints.
And Levin cleverly meshes the play and the play-within-the-play into one intricate work, turning it into an intelligent meditation on the craft of writing. In a piece of humorous postmodernism, the characters struggle to write themselves. What should happen in Act Two? they ask as the act begins. How can they overcome the dullness of Act One? The audience members begin to believe that the play they are seeing is still being written.
Live Theatre Workshop gives an energetic reading to this lively material. Lucero Less delivers a slippery Anderson, all nail-biting and stutters one moment, steely-eyed and murderously ambitious the next. Epstein is eminently believable as the panicked playwright, terrified that his creative powers are slipping away with his youth. Peg Peterson does a high-camp turn as Helga Ten Dorp, the Dutch next-door neighbor whose psychic powers could foil the plot. Stephen Frankenfield is engaging in the bit part of Porter Milgram, a lawyer who--surprise!--also nurtures playwriting aspirations.
Kristi Loera is more problematic as the devoted Myra Bruhl, whose riches have supported her husband's failing career for 11 years. Loera does a fine job portraying Myra's quick tumble from loving admiration for Sidney to a horrified realization that he might be evil. The problem with her performance is that she's the lone actor on stage who acts as though she's in a serious drama.
While she devolves into an emotional wreck, Sidney delivers wisecracking one-liners. "Darling, I may be capable of killing Clifford Anderson," he tells her. "I am not up to the criminal behavior of a Broadway producer."
The fault for this disconnect must be placed mostly at the feet of the director, Chuck Rankin. In his notes in the program, Rankin writes that Deathtrap is a "lush psychological thriller that explores the darkest recesses of a writer's mind." Loera seems to be the only one who got that message of high seriousness. The rest of the actors play the story for laughs, especially as it spirals closer and closer into the sublimely ridiculous. Even the sound design (by Rankin and Michael Martinez) is hokily hilarious, with spooky organ music rising up in great crescendos at scary moments.
But Rankin's direction of Loera is a minor misstep. He has guided his players through a mostly delightful romp, delivering on another promise in his notes to provide a "thoroughly enjoyable evening." Yes, the first act is a little dull, just as the characters worry; soon enough, the thrills begin, however, and don't stop until the curtain.
And that murderous set? Set designer Brian Henderson gets the credit for choreographing the arsenal of weapons in their deadly dance on the country-house wall.