When Playwrights Attack

If you've never seen 'Deathtrap,' check out Tucson Theatre Ensemble's production

Ira Levin's Deathtrap is splendid mystery entertainment the first time around, abounding in surprises and reversals and refusing to take itself at all seriously, though never devolving into silliness. On second viewing and beyond, however, its central conceit does become tiresome: playwrights working on a murder mystery that anticipates the events in their lives, which constitute the play we're seeing. If you've never seen Deathtrap, it's tremendous fun; if you've seen it before, repeat performances wear like a joke that's been told a bit too often.

Tucson Theatre Ensemble opened its production of Deathtrap last weekend, and despite some unevenness, it's a good introduction to the play. It's impossible to say much about the plot without giving too much away, but here's the setup: Sidney, a has-been playwright specializing in murder mysteries, is chronically blocked after a string of failures and is being supported by his wealthy but somewhat frail wife, Myra. One day, Sidney confesses to Myra that he's received a fabulous manuscript from a student, Clifford, and wouldn't it be fine for his career if he could somehow get Clifford out of the way and pass off this play, Deathtrap, as his own? Of course, Clifford arrives on Sidney's doorstep in short order, and foul play ensues.

On opening night, the Dave Sewell-directed production got off to a slow start, but soon gained momentum. As Sidney, Dan Davis initially seemed a bit mechanical and uninvolved, but once he loosened up, he transformed his stiffness into a patronizing aloofness quite true to character. (At one point, Sidney says, "I'm sorry if I awe you.")

Ruth Rickman as Myra came off as a sort of Molly McKasson on uppers, a little jittery and a lot ditzy but smarter than she initially seems. Rickman's timing wasn't quite right; she'd wait just a beat too long before delivering a line, which would then come in a rush. She could, however, ease into the part as the run continues.

No complaints about Kale Arndt as Clifford. Arndt is not the hunka burnin' love Christopher Reeve was in the 1982 movie; he's nerdier and bespectacled, yet he's full of the enthusiasm and self-confidence so critical to this character.

In smaller roles, Leanné Whitewolf Charlton plays a neighborhood psychic who complicates the murder plot, and Eric Anson makes a brief appearance as Sidney's attorney. Their acting styles are precisely opposite, but each fits well under the circumstances; Anson is even-keeled, natural and self-assured, while Charlton is flamboyant and campy. Her character is supposed to be Dutch, but Charlton makes her sound more like a Hungarian gypsy, which works perhaps even better.

The set is good and solid, and the costumes nicely place the action in 1978, when the play was first produced, without descending to parody. A small element that has been most impressive in the two Tucson Theatre Ensemble productions I've seen is the sound; the audio cues happen at the right time and seem to come from the right directions, which is something that one or two other small companies here can't always manage. The last thing you want in a play like this is to be distracted by a telephone that rings too late or too long.

Levin is best known as the author of Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives (the cynical original, not the happy-ending abomination belched up by Hollywood a couple of years ago). He's obviously good at this sort of thing, and he deploys humor well. Unfortunately, he lets the second act of Deathtrap stagnate halfway through--with too much tiresome dialogue covering what we've already seen in Act 1--and he doesn't wriggle out of the big climax at all gracefully. These are the sorts of faults that become too readily apparent on second viewing. First-timers, on the other hand, probably will be too tangled in the plot convolutions to care.